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Conspiracy theories

Posted on 22 December 2010 by Nic Damnjanovic

A short piece for the general audience of RTR radio, Perth, Australia.
(listen to the original audio podcast)

Sadly, some conspiracies are real. Tobacco companies conspired to conceal the truth about their deadly product for decades. Less recently, my own ancestors conspired with Guy Fawkes to blow up the English parliament in 1605.

Given conspiracies are real, and often dangerous, it's important to be on the lookout for them. But we must also be careful that we don’t slide into paranoia and see conspiracies everywhere. The trick is to be able to spot the difference between a genuine consensus and a conspiracy.

Distinguishing scientific consensus from conspiracy is especially important. For there is no more reliable guide to truths about the natural world than a genuine, widespread consensus within the relevant scientific community. If you want to know what will happen if you drop a hunk of sodium in water, for example, your best bet is to find out the consensus view amongst chemists. (Here's a hint: it's fun to watch, but you might lose an arm.)

Nevertheless, some vocal critics of modern climate science declare that the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are causing the earth to warm is, in effect, a mere conspiracy.

So how do we know who is right? How do we tell consensus from conspiracy?

The first thing to realize is that the claim that climate scientists are conspiring against us is itself a theory — namely a conspiracy theory. Like any other theory, we should believe a conspiracy theory only when there is strong evidence to support it.

Conspiracy theorists sometimes argue that climate scientists and their co-conspirators have something to gain by convincing us that humans are causing global warming. But that's a gross distortion of the truth. If we reasoned that way consistently, then whenever medical researchers discovered a new health hazard we shouldn’t heed their warning, we should accuse them of conspiring against us.

A conspiracy theory also doesn’t become plausible just because attacks on the consensus are treated with skepticism. Physicists are rightly skeptical of people trying to disprove Einstein’s theory of relativity, since that theory is supported by overwhelming evidence. The same is true of climate science and global warming.

Not only is there no evidence in support of the conspiracy theory about climate science, there are tell-tale signs that this theory is mere paranoia. Plausible theories — including plausible conspiracy theories — explain a wide range of facts, are consistent with other sciences and make novel predictions that turn out to be true. The climate science conspiracy theorists don’t spend their time making careful observations and accurate predictions, but instead must work overtime to protect their theory from refutation by challenging evidence and making more and more bizarre and untested speculations. In typical paranoid style, they are forced to extend the net of their fantasy further and further, so that not just some scientists, but almost all of the world’s climate scientists, scientific organizations and governments are in on the fraud. 

So, while we certainly need to be on the lookout for violent conspirators and ruthless tobacco companies, we also need to protect ourselves against paranoid conspiracy theories. Only then can we learn from others who are experts at things we are not. When it comes to global warming, few things could be more important.

[Many thanks to Professor Steve Lewandowsky for helpful comments on this post.]

NOTE: this post is also being "climatecast" by Dr. Nic Damnjanovic from the University of Western Australia on RTR -FM 92.1 at 11.30 AM WAST today. You can listen to the live broadcast online via http://www.rtrfm.com.au/listen or download the podcast here.

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Comments 1 to 50 out of 72:

  1. Conspiracy theorists sometimes argue that climate scientists and their co-conspirators have something to gain by convincing us that humans are causing global warming. But that's a gross distortion of the truth. If we reasoned that way consistently, then whenever medical researchers discovered a new health hazard we shouldn’t heed their warning, we should accuse them of conspiring against us.

    Not only that. You should not brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste, floss, avoid eating between meals, and drink water when thirsty (instead of juice or soft drinks). See, all these things are recommended by dentists to avoid cavities, but dentists are economically dependent on filling your cavities! They have a strong economic incentive to lie, or at the very least downplay the risks. The perverse incentives of a scientist seeking funding pales in comparison.

    Yet we believe our dentists, and distrust our climate scientists.
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  2. A couple of things, hope they're reasonably on topic. They are written from a mildly sceptic viewpoint so my tin hat is firmly strapped on

    - if we take a Kuhnian approach to the history of science then consensuses are temporary alignments and arguably the least productive periods of scientific activity. Nancy Orestes paper looks a bit on the simple side to me, but even if it were possible to line up papers in the way she did, we still need to ask Kuhn's question about scientific practice.

    - it's just wrong to imagine there is a black and white distinction between the interests of corporations (bad bad bad) and the interests of scientists (good). Science is a complex activity full of interests and rhetoric. The AGW debate is fascinating in this respect. Personally I'd like to see more use of renewable energy sources. But I don't think the world is going to end soon, or that the AGW panic is helpful.
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  3. meerkat wrote: "But I don't think the world is going to end soon, or that the AGW panic is helpful."

    Straw man argument. No one involved with AGW science claims it is going to cause the world to end. Just as nothing in the post above made the black and white 'corporations bad / scientists good' distinction you falsely ascribe to it.

    Panic is never helpful to decision making. Neither is fiction.
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  4. Excellent post, Dr. Nic!

    Albeit one sure to bring out the wingnut contingent...

    The logical incoherence of denial is forced to rely on conspiracy because science, data and simple physics is not on their side.

    As to Fawkes, a part of him lives on in all of us. The part that focuses on the truth, fie the consequences. The theory which best explains all of what we see and measure is summed up in 3 letters: AGW. And it doesn't take being a rocket scientist to understand it. Just having an open mind. But, as Tamino recently said:
    "Keeping an open mind doesn't mean letting your brain fall out."
    Let it begin.



    The Yooper
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  5. #2 meerkat

    - if we take a Kuhnian approach to the history of science then consensuses are temporary alignments and arguably the least productive periods of scientific activity.

    I'm no scientist nor historian, but consensuses are just the mounting evidence pointing to one particular explanation, reinforcing the possibility of the theory being truthful, or at least useful. Any problem about the consensus about the existence of Hadley Cells, or gravity or Ohm's Law? Any "period of low production" associated to them?

    But I don't think the world is going to end soon, or that the AGW panic is helpful.

    Panic? You mean overreaction? Take a look at the steady upward trend of the CO2 concentration. You see any reaction at all?
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  6. meercat writes: consensuses are temporary alignments and arguably the least productive periods of scientific activity

    What exactly does that mean?

    Let's take the case of another scientific consensus -- plate tectonics. Did the geosciences suddenly become less productive between the 1950s and 1970s, when the consensus over plate tectonics solidified? Would the field be more productive if there was a small but vocal community of "plate tectonics skeptics" who used their influence in the media to force the mainstream geosciences community to continually defend the existence of plate tectonics?

    Scientific consensus is a good thing, because it lets us focus more energy on the areas where there isn't a clear consensus yet. Let's say that a decade from now, we've all come to agreement on climate sensitivity (it's 3C). It's true that there would be much less energy and resources devoted to trying to understand climate sensitivity. People who are now doing that would then need to find other research topics. That's a good thing. There are plenty of other topics that need to be explored!

    meercat continues: I don't think the world is going to end soon, or that the AGW panic is helpful.

    Like CBDunkerson, I don't see how this kind of inflammatory talk is helpful. Are there people here who claim that the world is going to end, or who are promoting "panic"? My concern about AGW is that it will impose a lot of undesirable economic, social, and environmental costs on future generations. We are going to have to move away from fossil fuels anyway. If we can start that move sooner rather than later, we reduce the likelihood of adverse consequences from climate change.

    Like Alexandre, I agree that the actual problem we're facing is not panic but complacency.
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  7. "So how do we know who is right? How do we tell consensus from conspiracy?"

    'Conspiracy' is a loaded word; perhaps it is better to describe 'a group that acts in a manner that excessively promotes group-interest over objective decision-making'. Nah, that's too hard to say.

    I find the idea of a 'scientific conspiracy' hilarious. Go to any scientific conference: 'Big Science' research may be done in collaboration, but the people involved are at heart individualists. People listen to and read papers looking for flaws and ways to out-do each other.

    A good example is CERN's effort to build the LHC, supplanting FermiLab as the most powerful particle accelerator. The technical people from FermiLab participated in every phase of the design and many phases of construction. While that lengthy process was going on, they were flying back to Chicago hoping to beat the LHC to some hint of the Higgs. The lure of being the one who discovers something or the one who figures something out is too strong to allow 'conspiracy' to last very long.

    The folks who are more likely to 'conspire' under the long-winded definition are the ones who set the policies, run the large corporations, represent the paid political think tanks lobbies. Look at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, who are "pleased to work with reporters, producers, bloggers and editors to offer background information and interviews on topics related to coal-based energy" for an example.

    Look for conspiracy not among scientists, but among interest groups. Look for conspiracy on the other side, where science is thin and the politics of influence looms large.

    If any other proof is needed, look at the climate science situation: The real scientists are terrible at this game; the denial machine is thriving. How can anyone believe there's a conspiracy?
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  8. Meerkat:
    " it's just wrong to imagine there is a black and white distinction between the interests of corporations (bad bad bad) and the interests of scientists (good). "


    There is a huge difference between the two.
    Corporations are designed to create 'fantasies' for humans, whether that is insurance, bank accounts, cars or light bulbs. Those fantasies can be anything (like Marmite flavoured chocolate I saw today!). Corporations are guided by how much they can manipulate the public and governments.

    Science has only one answer, one result, because we live on this one planet in this one universe.
    You can't design a science theory to fit your desire, no matter how much people try to distort the reality, PR and advertising can not wrap up science and pretend it is a different product to what it actually is.

    If humanity disappeared along with it's corporations, the science that made it happen would still hold TRUE.
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  9. meerkat at 21:34 PM on 22 December, 2010

    “If we take a Kuhnian approach to the history of science….”

    Why would it be helpful to do so meerkat? Are Kuhn’s ideas on the nature of scientific revolutions relevant to climate science and the predicament of man-made climate change? Of course one can only truly address this from a (Kuhnian) historical perspective, but the essential scientific consensus in climate science/global warming (i.e. that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and augmenting its atmospheric concentration will result in warming of the Earth), is not subject to a Kuhnian-style revolution; it’s a truism. The important sub-elements of the science (how much warming and how fast, and where; climate sensitivity determination; paleoclimatology and past greenhouse gas-climate relationships etc. etc.) are being addressed rather productively, I would say (spend a bit of time reading on this site, for example!).

    In any case Kuhn didn’t consider what he called “normal science” (i.e. the science done within existing paradigms between “revolutions”) to be poorly productive; on the contrary, according to Kuhn, scientific “revolutions” can’t occur without the tensions, and ultimately, crises, that may arise as a result of "normal science".

    And in fact the current tensions that might presage a Kuhnian revolution in “worldview” is less a scientific one now than a socio-political one; if there is to be a “revolution” I would predict it will be to a worldview in which it becomes obvious that we cannot continue to power our societies on fossil fuels, and that there are productive alternatives.

    “…we still need to ask Kuhn's question about scientific practice.”

    What question are you thinking of meerkat, and why do we need to ask it?

    “it's just wrong to imagine there is a black and white distinction between the interests of corporations (bad bad bad) and the interests of scientists (good).”

    A straw man. No one thinks so, and Nic’s example in his top article of the nefarious actions of some of the tobacco companies is a simply a fact; there are many examples (e.g. elements of the pharma industry misrepresenting the science on the relationship between aspirin taking in children and Reyes disease in the 1980’s). On the other hand we can recognise, for example, Dupont’s far-sightedness in unilaterally ceasing CFC production in response to scientific evidence of ozone destruction in 1988, well before the mandated ban on CFC production by 1996.

    It’s easy to recognise good practice and bad practice and we should be smart and mature enough to recognise these when we encounter them. It’s obvious that there are vested interests in misrepresenting the science on climate change and these largely arise from some elements of the corporate sector and misguided political positions. This does constitute a conspiracy (to misrepresent the science and mislead the public) of sorts. We'd be silly to pretend otherwise.

    Going back to Kuhn, it's the latter viewpoint (i.e. that of the easily identifiable misrepresenters) that will lose out in the inevitable "revolution" of worldview to come. The science always prevails eventually, although the efforts of the misrepresenters can cause unnecessary misery along the way...
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  10. Dueling conspiracy theories: FF companies are trying to cover up climate change, or scientists are fabricating the fear.

    Numbers: very few FF companies in a handful of countries, controlled by a handful of people versus thousands of scientists working at hundreds (thousands?) of institutions around the globe.

    Motivation 1: trillions of dollars at stake for FF companies, versus perhaps a slight edge at getting additional grant money to fund research (which does not affect a scientist's already meager salary, but probably at best merely keeps them employed for another short span of years, or perhaps enables them to keep working/focused on their chosen topic instead of something else).

    Motivation 2: Corporate FF leaders personally make millions or billions of dollars a year (7 to 10 figures). Most scientists earn 5 figures. Their preferred reward is generally success and recognition in their field.

    Motivation 3: If the threat of AGW is believed, FF companies will lose trillions upon trillions in profits, now and forever. If the threat of AGW is not believed, climate scientists will simply work on something else within climate science. They don't need a threat to global civilization to keep their jobs. Climate and ecosystems have been studied for centuries, and we'll continue to do so, with or without the threat of AGW.

    Organization: One FF leader can fund and direct any number of "think tanks" or propaganda/media cronies through a well structured corporate chain of command. Who is in charge among the thousands of independent, institution/university employed scientists worldwide?

    Facts: If anything the FF companies say is false, they can continue to spout it over and over again, no matter how firmly it is refuted. There is no court governing propaganda. In advertising, if you say it often enough, people believe it. If anything a scientist says is false, it will quickly and thoroughly be taken to task (such as the mistake concerning the projected melting of Himalayan glaciers). Scientists live in a vicious world of peer-reviewed literature, professional competition, and (now) continuous, intense professional, public, media and governmental oversight. If there were a real chink in the armor, it would have been found.

    Tactics: Businesses are in the business of marketing. The most successful companies are great at advertising and marketing, which means getting you to notice them, and believe them. Scientists are in the business of doing research. They are often clueless in the nuances of convincing large groups of people. They expect the facts and logic to stand by themselves, without the window dressing that is the bread and butter of for-profit corporations.
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  11. meerkat #2:

    - if we take a Kuhnian approach to the history of science then consensuses are temporary alignments

    I think this is a misreading of Kuhn. Paradigm shifts happen, granted, but they don't usually involve a complete overthrow of our understanding of basic physical laws. More often, they involve an enlargement of our understanding of the implications or consequences of those laws. If anything, it's the gradual acceptance of the seriousness of AGW that represents a scientific revolution in Kuhn's sense, and it's the "skeptics" who are failing to rise to this occasion, intellectually and emotionally, by sticking their heads in the sand.

    Furthermore, Kuhn would (I think) argue that a new paradigm would have to offer a more comprehensive or consistent account of the phenomena under discussion. "Skeptics" haven't come anywhere near to offering such an account. They haven't even tried, as far as I can tell. Instead, they've reflexively offered a bunch of improvised and often contradictory counterarguments against specific data and interpretations. The only thing that unifies these counterarguments is a fundamental assumption of conspiracy, in my view; that's the only "paradigm" within which most of their speculations make any sense at all.

    And that's where I'd disagree (slightly) with this post. I don't think there's some vocal subset of "skeptics" who are prone to conspiracy theories. I think conspiracy theory is absolutely fundamental to the anti-AGW endeavor, both because it provides a framework in which mere speculation takes on the appearance of rigor and logic, and also because it's a compelling marketing tool (people love to feel like they're apart from the herd by being in on secret or forbidden knowledge).
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  12. #2 (meerkat),
    But I don't think the world is going to end soon, or that the AGW panic is helpful.

    Exactly what "panic" are you referring to? This is a denier BS habit that really bugs me... casting the AGW situation as CAGW, and equating calls for action to "panic."

    No one is panicking. If we begin to take moderate, considered and effective action now, there won't be any need to panic.

    On the other hand, if we sit around doing absolutely nothing until we have reason to panic...
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  13. Incidentally, misuse of Kuhn is a fairly common "skeptical" tactic. See, for instance, GM flack misuses Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science (!) to defend Lutz climate skepticism and Climate junk hard to dump.

    Once they get tired of this shiny bauble, perhap they can move on to the Foucauldian episteme. Eventually, we can have a "skeptical" transvaluation of philosophy, to go along with the "skeptical" transvaluation of science and history.
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  14. #13: "a "skeptical" transvaluation of philosophy"
    Don't even suggest that or the State of Texas will start printing philosophy textbooks with "I don't think, therefore I am." Of course, that will immediately be followed by "Ignorance is strength".
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  15. #14:

    "Whereof one shouldn't speak, thereof one must remain silent. Or else."
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  16. #2 meerkat… “The AGW debate is fascinating”

    What “debate”? As far as I am concerned, there is nothing to debate. AGW is not a conspiracy, it is a fact – as are its consequences and the sooner this is accepted and dealt with, the better.
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  17. Hopefully can cover most of the points raised.

    Kuhn's question about scientific practice, which he never resolved, was what value should be placed on what he called normal science. One answer he gave was that the historical value of normal science was to throw up empirical anomalies that eventually require a new theoretical framework, incommensurate with the previous one, with stronger capacity to explain and predict. By circling the wagons around a particular paradigm - "there is nothing to debate" - it becomes more difficult to achieve scientific progress. I can understand why this is happening in climate research, which is why the debate is fascinating. I am currently researching a paper provisionally called AGW skepticism - citizen science, tea party tantrums, or both?

    I should have moderated my language about the end of the world and panic. I'm sure no one on this list thinks that. I admire the approach taken on Skeptical Science and I apologise for my unbuttoned wording. I have been much affected by the stupidity of the 10:10 blow up film, and have been re-visiting the theory of moral panics for said paper.

    One area where I would continue to disagree with commentators is on the role of interests, which are as present in science as in any other area of human activity.

    Finally, the Wittgenstein quote is "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.". It's about the limits of language, and is too perfect to mess with.
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  18. #11 (Phila): I have to admit, I haven't read Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions".
    The Grist article you linked claims that Kuhn is often misrepresented, but does not elaborate. Or is the misrepresentation the fact, that climate skeptics (/-denialists whatever) don't have their own sound theory to counter the current one? Or is there anything else?


    #17 (meerkat): If you really look for a new paradigm what about one which modifies the current economics consensus that financial self interests are the strongest incentives which can be usefully exploited? I mean, the spectacular scientific development of the last 300 hundred years was driven by the scientists' quest for fame and recognition. And the scientific organizations during this time (and today) remind me more of guilds than modern corporations.
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  19. "300 hundred" intended to be "300" originally :) sorry
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  20. #17: "circling the wagons around a particular paradigm"

    Perhaps you've missed an important point. Perhaps AGW is the new paradigm, one that must replace the 'we can do anything we want and never pay for it' attitude that, left unregulated, led to acid rain, ozone holes, super-fund sites, medical waste in the ocean, etc, etc, etc.

    Then your 'skepticism' becomes the act of circling the wagons around the old paradigm. A notable example: "failures of the current paradigm to take into account observed phenomena". AGW skeptics cannot explain the observed phenomena without resorting to more convoluted, self-contradictory (and eventually irrational) arguments.

    There are dozens of examples of defense of the old paradigm in the pages of SkS: It's warming, it's cooling, it's not us, it can't be measured, yada, yada, yada.
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  21. Many "skeptics" claim that climate scientists try to convince us that humans are causing global warming in order to advance their own career and financial interests. I consider that claim laughable. Arguing about motivations is basically a distraction to avoid arguing the facts, which support AGW.

    But while we're on the topic of motivations, aren't those skeptics just following their own financial interests? They believe that a response to AGW would cost them money. And they think that they can avoid the cost of slowing or stopping AGW if they can convince themselves and others that AGW is a conspiracy.
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  22. meerkat at 21:54 PM on 23 December 2010

    “Kuhn's question about scientific practice, which he never resolved, was what value should be placed on what he called normal science….


    Lots of problems with that paragraph meerkat, and if you are writing a paper on this subject you should explore I little deeper I think:

    (i) I don’t agree that Kuhn never resolved to his own satisfaction the “value” to be placed on normal science. I’m not going to plough through his book again, but perhaps you could point out the sections in which that interpretation is apparent. My understanding is that he considered “normal science” paramount to scientific progress else scientific progress simply stops; there would simply be no empirical framework for accepting or rejecting theories and fuelling novel thought that leads to paradigm shifts. In fact although you seemingly consider with your fanciful notion (“circling the wagons” !) that strong efforts to explore and interpret the world within prevailing paridigms makes it “more difficult to achieve scientific progress”, Kuhn thought exactly the opposite, i.e. that the general community of scientists should be robust in supporting the current paradigm so that careful experimentation and interpretation will expose any flaws that exist within it, and so that any novel (potentially paradigm-shifting) ideas are given a good sceptical “workover”!

    (ii) In any case what does it matter what Thomas Kuhn thought in 1962?! It would be lacking scepticism in the extreme to judge contemporary science solely in Kuhnian terms, for 2 reasons:

    (a) because many subsequent philosophies of science likely provide a more realistic account of the nature of modern scientific progress [e.g. I would say that both Stephen Toulman and Paul Fayerabend (!) have provided more realistic accounts of the nature of scientific advance].

    (b) because one can only really judge scientific progress in a Kuhnian sense from a historical perspective, and we can’t yet look back on contemporary science and consider what new paradigms arose and why. Of course we can be sure that the faux-paradigm of climate “contrarianism” will not prevail since this is neither a scientific one, nor does it have any sort of coherent framework!

    (iii) You need to address what you mean by “value” …. what value should be placed on what he called normal science….. As in (i) I consider Kuhn was pretty clear about the fundamental value of “normal science”; but you should really think more carefully about what you mean by “value” in the context of contemporary “normal science”, since it seems you’re attempting to bypass objective assessment of science you seem not to like, and and “trash” this science by a self-serving interpretation of Kuhn….

    (iv) ….. so forget Kuhn (you’re writing a paper after all and so you should be a little sceptical of lazy interpretations!), and explore examples of scientific advances that have arisen since Kuhn. That might help you to think about the “value” of “normal science” on more objective terms. For example:

    (a) The discovery of the structure of DNA (revolutionary science; paradigm shift; Nobel prize for Watson Crick and Wilkins):

    This discovery simply wouldn’t have been possible at that particular time without a supporting framework arising from “normal science” including knowledge of the base ratios in DNA (Chargaff’s rules), the nature of isomerisation of the bases in DNA; understanding the nature of the hydrogen bond and electrostatics; the physics of X-ray fibre diffraction and so on. I don’t think Kuhn would have considered these aspects of “normal science” to be lacking in “value”! (incidentally, one might debate whether some of these might be assigned “paradigm shifts” in their own right). I would say the discovery of the structure of DNA has strong elements of Fayerabendian philosophy!

    (b) The invention of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) (incidentally, I wouldn’t necessarily call this a “paradigm shift”; Nobel prize for Mansfield and Lauterbur).

    I would say that this discovery is within the realm of “normal science” ‘though one could quibble about that. I don’t think anyone would question the “value” of this invention or the contributions it has made to basic understanding in anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and medicine. But it follows almost inevitably from a long series of incremental theoretical, and technical advances within the framework of “normal science” (the discovery of magnetic resonance in the late 30’s/early 40’s, and its development through the following decades, the application of spin physics to nuclear spin transitions driven by electromagnetic pulses, the invention of Fourier transform NMR methods, the development of computers with sufficient computational and storage power to collect and process the large digital datasets, the development of high field magnetic and invention of superconducting magnets, etc. etc.).

    perhaps you could illustrate your Kuhnian ideas with examples...
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  23. meerkat at 21:54 PM on 23 December 2010

    "One area where I would continue to disagree with commentators is on the role of interests, which are as present in science as in any other area of human activity."


    You need to provide examples I think. "Commentators" on this thread have given examples of "interests" (corporate/political) that have resulted in misrepresenting science for self-serving purposes. These are blatant attempts (conspiricies) to skew perception of scientific knowledge, often to the detriment of the public at large, and they continue to occur, including in relation to climate science.

    There's no question that science, being an activity pursued by humans, is subject to "interest" (you would find the rather racy writings of Paul Fayerabend useful to explore this!). But the interests of scientists (proper scientists who make up the vast majority of scientists in the public and industrial spheres) have a strong interest in (i) making true discoveries (ii) getting it right, since the very nature of science (it provides explanations of the natural world and thus can only temporarily make excursions up self-serving false routes), means wayward approaches are found out, often rather quickly. So science creates a framework that predisposes to honesty and care. That's not to say that vanity, the desire for personal advance, and other human traits don't add a delightful frisson to the process!
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  24. Why are my posts being deleted ?
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    Moderator Response: [Daniel Bailey] Your previous 2 comments were deleted as they were in violation of the Comments Policy. Specifically, this part: "Any accusations of deception, fraud, dishonesty or corruption will be deleted" and this part: "No ALL CAPS" As this is a post on conspiracy theories, a certain amount of latitude will be allowed, but be careful with any insinuations (speaking in generalities is advised).
  25. meerkat:

    Kuhn's question about scientific practice, which he never resolved, was what value should be placed on what he called normal science. One answer he gave was that the historical value of normal science was to throw up empirical anomalies that eventually require a new theoretical framework, incommensurate with the previous one, with stronger capacity to explain and predict.

    First, that's really not what's happening with AGW. There is no crisis, in Kuhn's sense, and there are no empirical anomalies — at least, that I'm aware of — that are not explicable within the standard theoretical framework. If you disagree, please provide examples.

    Second, I'd echo Chris at 22, and say that your view of what Kuhn thought about "normal" science isn't quite correct. You might try reading The Road Since Structure, in which he explains more clearly why he believes normal science is both valuable and authoritative, and states specifically that when it comes to choosing one theory over another, "trained scientists should be the highest court of appeal." You can also read a late interview with him here, and consider whether it supports your account of his views.

    I'd also echo Chris on Feyerabend, and add that Pierre Bourdieu's Science of Science and Reflexivity provides a somewhat more rigorous take on these issues (particularly the issue of "interests"), without falling prey to "the naively idealized vision of the 'scientific' community as the enchanted kingdom of the ends of reason" or "the cynical vision which reduces exchanges between scientists to the calculated brutality of political power relations."

    Speaking of which:

    "One area where I would continue to disagree with commentators is on the role of interests, which are as present in science as in any other area of human activity."

    The claim that commenters here are unaware that scientists have interests comes pretty close to being insulting. To an extent, it sounds like you're having the argument you want to have, rather than responding to things people have actually said. I've occasionally run into "skeptics" who have just skimmed Kuhn or whomever, and think that no one but them has ever considered the extent to which knowledge is socially constructed. It's a bad assumption to make.

    Of course scientists have "interests." However, one of these interests tends to be accuracy, for reasons that include grubby personal motivations but are not limited to them (Bourdieu's concept of "a regulated struggle" that takes place in "the singular conditions of the scientific field" is helpful in understanding this).

    Finally, the Wittgenstein quote is "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.". It's about the limits of language, and is too perfect to mess with.

    I'm familiar with the quote, thanks. My version was a continuation of meerkat's joke at #14.
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  26. So I posted it without caps and it was deleted anyway ?

    So what is up with that ? If you are discussing conspiracy theories you need to allow conspiracy theories to be discussed !

    Sounds logical to me.

    Is global warming a conspiracy ? Did a group of scientists go to a back room and make up Global Warming to make a lot of money. Of course not.


    What exists is a “conspiracy of self interest”. It is to the best interest of all climate scientists for enough plausibility be found in Global Warming AKA climate change AKA climate disruption AKA weirding weather to keep the lights on and their paychecks coming in. If global Warming were to be found to be entirely natural, funding and staffs would be drastically cut.

    Does it take a conspiracy with a central co-coordinator to assure us that human beings will act like human beings ? Many like the late Stephen Schneider think that exaggerating certainties and hiding uncertainties is justified for the good of the planet.

    Is the price of sugar a conspiracy or the result of thousands of people dong what they think is in their own self interest. ? The “invisible hand” works in all other aspects of human civilization, to believe it doesn’t in climate science is naïve.

    To be fair around 1998 when there had been many [20] years of continuous warming I can see why the climatologists were concerned. I would have been too. They projected the current temperature rise to mean 3 ° C by 2100. [They exaggerated the rate by about 3 X] They didn’t have a crystal ball to tell them that over the next 12 years temperatures would be flat or slowly fall. And they didn’t have enough knowledge of history to know this 60 year cycle was normal. Studying global warming seemed to make sense. Of course once the laboratories had been built and the scientists hired there was a “constituency “ for further research.

    Most scientist just want to study something and get paid for it and the best way to do that is to go with the flow. Climate change or global warming in the title of your study triples the chances of it being funded by government or Greenpeace or WWF. After you take their money you had better find serious consequences if you ever want to get any more $.
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    Moderator Response: The offending portions of your post have been deleted. Please use this as a future reference for what is or is not permissible given the comment policy for this site.

    Also note that the comment regarding warming since 1998 is addressed here. Please review the List of Skeptic Arguments prior to posting and ensure your comments are placed in the appropriate thread.
  27. NETDR:

    What exists is a “conspiracy of self interest”. It is to the best interest of all climate scientists for enough plausibility be found in Global Warming AKA climate change AKA climate disruption AKA weirding weather to keep the lights on and their paychecks coming in. If global Warming were to be found to be entirely natural, funding and staffs would be drastically cut.

    Actually, claiming that the science is settled is not the ideal way to secure funding, for obvious reasons. If I wanted to keep the lights on and the paychecks coming in, I'd probably want to downplay the consensus. Arguably, if anyone has kept money flowing into the pockets of climate scientists, it's the people who are manufacturing doubt about their findings to such an extent that even century-old science is somehow up for debate.

    Beyond that, most of your claims are entirely speculative, and draw heavily on a longstanding complex of paranoid political scenarios for which there's never been much evidence (old John Birch Society tracts notwithstanding). As this post says, "we should believe a conspiracy theory only when there is strong evidence to support it."

    In short, anyone can throw prejudicial words like "mafia" around. How about addressing the science, instead?
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  28. Also, NETDR, this makes no sense:

    If global Warming were to be found to be entirely natural, funding and staffs would be drastically cut.

    Why? If global warming were natural, it would still be a good idea to study it, wouldn't it? Wouldn't we still want to know how hot it was likely to get, and how fast, and where? Wouldn't polar melting, drought and wildfires still be a concern? Wouldn't governments and the military be interested in the implications of natural warming for agriculture, weather patterns and the potential for regional resource wars? Wouldn't investors be interested in this information?

    And even if scientists en masse were afflicted with the weird complacency that natural warming seems to inspire in "skeptics," wouldn't they still be interested in studying it for its own sake, just as they study other natural phenomena?

    I really don't think you've thought your claims through very carefully.
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  29. NETDR,

    Misconceptions of the scientific community (such as "global warming research would be curtailed if it was natural") and misunderstanding of the observational records (look at argument #7, at the moment, in the top left column) are prime examples of contrarian self-interest under the guise of skepticism.
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  30. 26: "What exists is a “conspiracy of self interest”."

    Perhaps, but you should provide some evidence of this if you want to be taken seriously. However, compare the scale of the interest groups: Some university profs and government researchers vs. the Koch Bros. et al in their lobbying effort against California's Prop 23 is a good example. From the money spent, it's obvious who has the bigger self-interest and thus by your logic who's “invisible hand” is bigger.
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  31. Chris

    Briefly, because we're going rapidly off topic, wrt to normal/revolutionary science you're overemphasising the positions Kuhn took in his debate with Popper in the 1960s and overlooking his later, post 1962 publications. Continue on hopos-l if you want, but pls. tone down the snarking!

    Meerkie
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  32. Several posters have made the point that claiming consensus is not the best way to obtain funding.

    I disagree and have some experience in a similar situation.

    I worked for several defense contractors. When the Soviet
    Union cease to be a threat the company I was with closed a division and laid off thousands and I was one of them.


    How many people now do what I used to do ? About 25 % but that is just a guess. Some have been reassigned to new threats like roadside bombs and IED detection but it is a shell of it's former self. I ws paid a hansom salary and know nothing about IED detection, so hiring a young cheap engineer who also knows nothing about IED detection makes business sense, but it is hard on my wallet. The point is the required skill set is different.

    Sure there were other defense related business but it was a game of musical chairs and I was without a chair. I retrained into IT and survived but many didn't. That is what would happen if it were proven beyond a doubt that CAGW was not true.

    If it were proven to be absolutely true and undeniable vast amounts of resources would be put into mitigation studies, and determining exactly how big the problem was.

    Since the consensus view is under serious attack from the skeptics it is in the best interest of the climate community to reduce the uncertainties and dot the I's and cross the T's. It is such a complex subject that almost unlimited funds could be spent.

    I have no doubt that there are many honest sincere researchers who believe in the C in CAGW and thin it is in mankind's interest to exaggerate the problem somewhat to get the public's attention, like Stephen Schneider who said:


    "We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest."

    Is that an invitation to a conspiracy of silence concerning unfavorable data or results ? I think it is.
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  33. NETDR, you have misquoted Schneider. What he said, in full, was:
    "On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but—which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that, we need, to get some broad base support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention about any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both."

    That passage was selectively quoted, in the form you have used, by journalists, and has been repeated frequently since. You will notice the difference in meaning and intent when everything he said is included.
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  34. #32: "the consensus view is under serious attack from the skeptics"

    That's almost funny. If you want to see the actual condition of this 'serious attack', look at The value of coherence.

    Perhaps you should look at IPCC is alarmist.

    In the meantime, you've been doing a good job demonstrating this author's point:

    In typical paranoid style, they are forced to extend the net of their fantasy further and further, so that not just some scientists, but almost all of the world’s climate scientists, scientific organizations and governments are in on the fraud.
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  35. When I worked for defense contractors we were a "team" defending our nation against the Soviet Union, and making 6 figure salaries [in today's dollars] doing it and having fun. [The type that only engineers can understand]

    Anyone who correctly predicted that the Soviet Union was a paper tiger and would soon collapse would have been treated as a pariah and shunned like the plague.

    Many in the climate industry are genuine team members working for a cause they believe in. Are they evil ? No. Are they wrong ?

    I believe yes.

    I thought even when the Soviet Union collapse that I was so valuable that i would be assigned other important work and didn't need to fear losing my job. I was wrong just like many people who study climate change are wrong.
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  36. #33 johnmacmot

    I honestly see no appreciable difference between what you posted and what I posted. A little more hand wringing and self justification but essentially no difference in the message at all.

    Schneider said:

    "And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that, we need, to get some broad base support, to capture the public's imagination."

    To me that part just digs the hole deeper ! When you are in a hole stop digging is rule # 1 .

    Sorry !
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  37. Good question.
    But it is very difficult to separate conspiracy of consensus on the issue of anthropogenic greenhouse because I think these two factors, conspiracy and consensus, are present in most papers and lectures.
    Take for example that said Freeman Dyson on "climate modellers;

    "They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields, farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in."

    In his book Pluralism: Against the Demand for Consensus, the philosopher Nicholas Rescher defined consensus as a “condition of intellectual uniformity, a homogeneity of thought and opinion.”

    Most sincerity was James Hansen who wrote;

    "Our 3-D global climate model yields a warming of ~ 4°C for either a 2 percent increase of So or doubled CO2. This indicates a net feedback factor of f = 3-4, because either of these forcings would cause the earth's surface temperature to warm 1.2-1.3°C to restore radiative balance with space, if other factors remained unchanged.” This indicates a net feedback factor of f = 3-4, because either of these forcings would cause the earth's surface temperature to warm 1.2-1.3 ° C to restore radiative balance with space, if other factors remained unchanged. "

    Renew, for to reinforce;

    "if other factors remained unchanged."

    By studying the thermodynamics of the atmosphere, it is known that heating the soil above the air temperature triggers the mechanism of thermal exchange by convection. And this exchange is dependent on temperature diferecial ground / air.
    But examine to the more than 80 meteorological stations INMET-Brazil did not find even a measuring temperature of the soil, only the air temperature (two meters above ground level).
    Then there is the missing link in the study of clima.Só remains the consensus because no one will say anything to the contrary.
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  38. NETDR >I worked for several defense contractors. When the Soviet
    Union cease to be a threat the company I was with closed a division and laid off thousands and I was one of them.


    Your analogy is not valid. The point makes the false assumption that climate science exists to save us from global warming; it does not. By definition, the purpose is to study and understand climate, whatever the result may be.

    The "threat" from which climate science is defending is the unknown and the unpredictable, and it's not going away any time soon. Mitigation of known risks is primarily in the domain of economics, politics, and engineering - not climate science. Why would climate scientists be working to help economists keep their jobs?

    Also consider the fact that the Bush administration was openly skeptical regarding the threat from global warming, yet climate science funding continued unabated turing his presidency. From the perspective of the government, the threat did not exist, and by your logic the funding should have dried up, yet it didn't.
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  39. Interesting response, NETDR.

    You were familiar with a quote-mined passage that fits in with your opinion. I suspect you've used that carefully- shaped "quote" before to support your arguments.

    When you are shown the full context, you are unable to read it accurately, and understand the clear difference in meaning. An objective and open-minded response would see the considerable difference in meaning.

    "To me that part just digs the hole deeper ! When you are in a hole stop digging is rule # 1 ."

    Now what exactly does this comment mean? How was Schneider in a hole and digging himself deeper? It seems as if you are reading Schneider's actual comment as something additional he said later after some original comment. Otherwise your statement makes no sense.

    On this site, accurate use of scientific studies is valued and cherry-picking of data to fit a pre-conceived case is seen as a misleading, dishonest tactic. Equally, quote-mining and selectively using a person's words to convey the meaning you would like to attribute to them is misleading, and certainly knowingly dishonest when first done in this case.

    You might not have known that before what Schneider said in full, but you do now. You might want to re-read what Schneider said, with care and an open-mind, and adjust your understanding.
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  40. NETDR,

    Your experience with politics is not indicative of the scientific community. The collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent end of the Cold War did decrease the need for military spending. Finding out that a scientific theory, and the empirical observations supporting it, is inaccurate does not decrease the need for scientific research.

    No amount of exhortation on how self serving, incompetent hacks are conspiring to hide The Truth(tm) in order to protect their funding will cause the independently validated empirical observations and scientific theories to disappear.
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  41. meerkat at 06:43 AM on 24 December, 2010

    OK meerkat but what what does it matter what Kuhn did or didn't think about "normal science"? Kuhn's was simply a personal effort to encapsulate/generalize something about the progression of scientific knowledge. That's what philosophies of science are. They aren't a description of what science actually is or how science is actually done at any particular point in time.

    In other words you can't make a vague (and incorrect as and Phila and I have described!) interpretation of what someone considers might be a generalised stage of progression within a scientific field (aka Kuhn's "normal science"), unilaterally assert that the present climate science arena conforms to this, and then attempt to bash this science with the flabby truncheon that you've conjured up!

    If you've got a specific problem with the nature of climate science then why not describe this explicitly? I've given you some examples of why I consider (like Kuhn did) that "normal science" is a hugely valuable (and fundamental) part of the advance of scientific knowledge. If you think otherwise then you really need to give some specific examples.

    as for "snark", you're suggesting by insinuation that the current areas of strong consensus constitutes a hindrance to scientific advance, and that there's some sort of unjustifiable attempt to protect a paradigm ("circling the wagons"), and seem to have a notion about "interests" of scientists that we can assume you think problematic (since you raise the point!). That's pretty snarky especially as you don't give any evidence in support of those insinuations.

    you could certainly help to realign this argument with the subject of the thread (conspiracies!) by giving some examples of how you consider the "interests" of scientists to be problematic (if that's what you think). But please be specific!
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  42. The point I was making is that the late Dr Schneider agreed with me that the way to increase funding was to hide doubt and overstate certainty.


    See the quote in #33

    The reason I said "when you are in a hole stop digging" is that your additional words strengthened my case.

    I can see that if to you CAGW is a given then making it more controversial might make it more interesting to study for you, but the government and public don't work like that.

    Schneider and I agree there are hundreds of problems all screaming for dollars to solve them and more certainty that there really is a problem would increase funding. To you there is no doubt but you are not representative of "the public"!
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  43. NETDR, The point I was making is that the late Dr Schneider agreed with me that the way to increase funding was to hide doubt and overstate certainty.

    Nowhere did he mention an increase in funding for climate studies, and nowhere did he suggest that actual science be tweaked to fit a particular view. Again, you are confusing advocacy for mitigation with advocacy for climate science, the two are related but very much distinct.
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  44. Re: Tarcisio José D'Avila (37)

    Dyson is an extremely poor source to quote-mine from on things related to climate science. While an expert in his field, he admits to knowing next to nothing about climate science and in the remainder of that interview admits to merely offering up an uninformed opinion.

    Asking Dyson to offer up substantive opinion on climate science is like asking a pastry chef to be a rocket scientist for NASA.

    The Yooper
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  45. Re: NETDR (42)

    Unless you actually had a conversation personally with Dr. Schneider you should refrain from quoting him as if you did. If you did, when was that? Do you have any way to corroborate that?

    If you wish to have any credibility here, exercise a little more care when composing your arguments.

    The Yooper
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  46. NETDR:

    I disagree and have some experience in a similar situation.

    OK, so we can now add the weight of personal anecdote to that of mere insinuation. I still prefer climate science and its actual data, thanks.

    Again, what you and other "skeptics" never seem to get is that your speculation about a "conspiracy of self-interest" — and its effects — requires at least the same amount of hard evidence you demand for AGW. This article makes the point clearly, but it can't be said often enough.

    You don't have this evidence. What you have, generally speaking, is prejudicial language (e.g., "mafia"), cherrypicked quotes and weak inferences based on a particular ideological view of human nature (which, significantly, you tend not to apply consistently, if at all, to other theories and sciences). The major problem you face is that the natural world is effectively in on the conspiracy, so your speculative and inferential attacks on scientists are pretty much beside the point.

    It's fine to talk about "self-interest" within a competitive field, but you also need to consider how rewards and credibility actually accrue to individuals within that field, because this determines which tactics are available to them. The idea that (wrongly) presenting AGW as "plausible" would garner the greatest rewards and fewest risks in climatology strikes me as a really bizarre proposition. And that would be the case even if there weren't a well-funded anti-AGW movement waiting to take scientists' remarks out of context or leave key data out of their arguments. Given what's at stake and the nature of the forces arrayed against them, "self-interest" for climatologists involves using careful language, doublechecking their calculations and getting their facts as straight as possible. In that regard, the contrast with "skeptics," who need to do little more than throw muck and see what sticks, couldn't be more stark.
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  47. 46


    The natural world is warming, that is a given. Despite some people spending huge amounts of time saying things like glaciers aren't in on the conspiracy that is just a straw-man. No one said it wasn't warming.


    Presenting CAGW as plausible is the wisest course for a non tenured individual as recent e-mails proved.

    PhD climatologist Judith Curry has had the "blinders" removed !

    She wrote:

    "When I refer to the IPCC dogma, it is the religious importance that the IPCC holds for this cadre of scientists; they will tolerate no dissent, and seek to trample and discredit anyone who challenges the IPCC. Who are these priests of the IPCC? Some are mid to late career middle ranking scientists who have done ok in terms of the academic meritocracy. Others were still graduate students when they were appointed as lead authors for the IPCC.

    These scientists have used to IPCC to gain a seat at the “big tables” where they can play power politics with the collective expertise of the IPCC, to obtain personal publicity, and to advance their careers.

    This advancement of their careers is done with the complicity of the professional societies and the institutions that fund science. Eager for the publicity, high impact journals such as Nature, Science, and PNAS frequently publish sensational but dubious papers that support the climate alarm narrative."

    She seems to think there would be some negative fall out from challenging the IPCC ! Is she wrong ?
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  48. NETDR - Consider where fame, reputation, and status in science comes from: producing correct results. Nature is a harsh critic, and bad science (Lindzen and Choi? Gerlich and Tscheuschner?) gets found out fairly quickly.

    Perhaps there is some negative fall out from challenging the IPCC (not surprising, you would be making an extraordinary claim, and hence require extraordinary evidence [Sagan]).

    But there is a much higher cost to promoting incorrect results. Consistent results work, and make a reputation. Making stuff up out of whole cloth (as conspiracy theories require) is a really foolish tactic - you quickly get caught by nature, the world, and reputation hungry grad students! :)
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  49. Many people, including some regulars to this very site, make the claim that the world isn't warming. The #4 skeptic argument is currently "It's cooling."

    Yes, Judith Curry is wrong. Dismissing independently validated empirical observation and scientific theory as a religion is a good indicator of ideological "blinders".

    What would you think about that quote if the subject were evolution through natural selection rather than anthropogenic global warming?
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  50. #47: "She seems to think ... "

    You won't get any mileage quoting J. Curry around here; this isn't 'climate-skeptic'.

    You haven't responded to questions here, here and here, among others. Your rhetoric is escalating again; words like 'CAGW' (whatever that means), 'glaciers in on the conspiracy', 'blinders', 'dogma', 'religious importance', etc. are the usual clues to an impoverished argument. I suggest a radical change in tactics; learn something about what the science has to say and you might be able to mount a credible argument.

    Now that would be an interesting change!
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