Confusionist Hordes

The piece is a couple of years old and the blog is obscure, and the observation isn’t all that original, but it’s explained very nicely. One of the key features of how we have lost the internet is described nicely in this article: “More Fires than Mongols: Illusions of Controversy on Climate Change

Having recently read an amazing biography of Genghis Khan, indeed arguably the greatest military genius of all time, I was especially taken by this analogy from “Father Theo” who does not appear to be a priest, just somebody who plays sometimes in his daughter’s band.

Genghis worked it this way.  He had his army set up camp outside a walled city.  At night the army would light hundreds of campfires, most of them around dummy encampments, so that anyone looking out from the walls of the city would see campfires everywhere and presume a Mongol army much larger than the one that actually existed.  Thus Genghis could win the psychological war on his enemy without risking a single casualty, and provoked concessions and easy victories from deceived and frightened opponents.  With an army of 50,000 illiterate Mongols—trivial in the larger scheme of things—Genghis created the largest empire the world has ever known, and it was tactics like the above which allowed him to do it.

The climate denial camp is now using a similar tactic.  To create an illusion of numbers, they recycle the same old deniers over and over again.  But really, they aren’t many.  It may seem that way sometimes, but actually, they’ve just built a lot of campfires.  The Mongol hordes of medieval times have simply been replaced with a miscellaneous helter-skelter of climate deniers, who’ve got the oil and gas industry to build their fires for them.

There’s more. Go look.

I think this is a keeper. It’s an explanation that is clear enough for climate newbies to get an inkling of what is going on.

 

 

Comments:

  1. The campfire metaphor could also be used to illustrate the antics of (I'm trying to be neutral and avoid labels here) those who think that climate science says that we must swiftly and radically transform the way we live. Here in Britain, the big charities and the countless little activist groups (many of them sockpuppets; another form of Genghising) use the same handful of discredited or superseded studies or distorted versions of solid studies to push their view that science says we must immediately do what they say we must do or else the end of the world is nigh. They don't check whether a study has been superseded or discredited (or if they do, they don't care): it's science and it points to a scary future, so let's use it.

    It would take too long to come up with a definitive list of these favourite studies - these campfires - but it would probably include Arnell 2004, Burke 2006, the GHF mortality estimate, various studies about crop yields, Barnett 2005, Kehrwald 2008, one or two studies on conflict, an in-house NGO report on disasters, and Norman Myers on migration.

    Father Theo's campfire-builders boost their tally by simple repetition. NGOs do that too but they also redeploy studies in different guises. One number erroneously derived from Arnell, for example, has been applied by the same NGO (Christian Aid) to both water-stress and poverty. Other numbers are applied to different dates or different regions or are rounded up again and again until sometimes (e.g. the number of Asians said to rely on melting glaciers for water) they are several times larger than the original (and, in the example given, 30 or 40 times larger than more recent scientific estimates). Giving different sources for the same number is a further multiplier and the campfires are made brighter by ascribing everything to climate change when the dim and distant original did no such thing.

    I'm sure most of this isn't deliberate. It's the result of Chinese Whispers. One NGO applies a bit of spin to something, the next one mistakes the spin for the substance and adds its own spin, and so on. There's no mustachioed, yurt-dwelling tactical genius behind it all. The result is the same, though: huge numbers of dummy campfires lit by a small band of besiegers.

    (Cue Bulwer-Lytton: It was a dark and stormy night and an uncountable multitude of sciencey campfires flickered in the gloom encircling the city, which, had it been awake, would surely have looked out from its walls of Wilful Ignorance and its altern towers of Cupidity and Waste and cowered like the most piteous penitent before such a host, but the city slept on and, come the dawn, the mighty Army of Truth had shrunk to a scattered Platoon of Factoids that steamed like cowpats as the sun warmed the desolate plain and they too began to decay. Another day and no sign of Genghis. Time for breakfast.)

  2. I don't recognize even one of those as among the scary stuff I generally reference (and that, yeah, strongly suggest that "we must swiftly and radically transform the way we live"). Some have even been discussed here, and probably the bulk of them on Michael's solo blog over the years. However did you miss them?

    Regarding "must," of course we won't, not nearly soon enough to avoid nasty consequences. Too many of us are too busy looking hard in the wrong direction, and so we will require a few sharp blows to our collective skull. Thank you for your ongoing contributions to that state of affairs.

  3. This analogy reminded me of this draft I kept of a comment by Vaughan Pratt, where he projected kim-like commenters into the Matrix universe:

    > Kim, I’m getting the impression that The Matrix was written for you. You are Neo, acronym for The One. “Authority” is 50,000 Agent Smiths, the many, created (Isaiah 54:16) to impose the ideology of Machine City on the public, as its method of concentrating wealth and power in the core of the Matrix.

    http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com/post/34253561163

    Just imagine if the Agent Smiths were facing thousands of Neos...

  4. +1 Steve.

    It's a fair point. I never heard of any of those things either. Environmentalist excesses exist, and one would would have thought they play to a narrow niche market, but in fact their main consumers may be the people trying to smear the scientific mainstream with the brush of unwarranted alarmism.

    However, while to be fair I just learned about "the GHF mortality estimate" from Vinny himself while slumming at Kloor's; it was fairly high profile report and did have Schellnhuber's name on it. It was definitely a sloppy thing and not a high point of the discourse, though not as wretched as the recent DARA thing. So yeah, these things exist.

    But so what?

    We only hear of them from the naysayers. They don't actually have much impact on what we are thinking. I imagine Schellnhuber himself doesn't have it on his resume.

    I had a sort of a pop science sustainability book from the 80s with Francis Bretherton among the signatories. There was an embarassing meaning-shifting typo in it, and I asked Francis to allow me to issue an erratum on usenet.

    He looked puzzled. I showed him the book. His brow furrowed for a second, and then he said "oh that thing, yes" somewhat dismissively. He didn't really want to talk about it. I'm not entirely sure why; it seemed a solid enough compendium, but perhaps he had very little to do with it. Scientists above a certain level leave their names all over lots of things, I gather.

    What's important is what we look at. Some people spend their time looking for the best things written by anybody. Others just have a motivated reasoning filter.

    But even that is far better than those who spend much of their time specifically looking for the worst stuff that mismatches their motivations. They may win points in debates, but they expend their attentions on nothing that is worth reading at all.

  5. A few quick notes.

    1. I do sometimes go hunting for errors. Guilty. At other times, though, I find out about NGO misrepresentations of current climate science when influential newspapers report them uncritically. Things leap out at you. That can't be right, you think. You look, and it isn't.

    2. MT: 'Environmentalist excesses exist, and one would would have thought they play to a narrow niche market, but in fact their main consumers may be the people trying to smear the scientific mainstream with the brush of unwarranted alarmism.'

    That might be true of America but climate-concerned NGOs have a lot of clout here. They are full members of the Establishment and have real influence on legislation and policies (especially at EU level).

    3. Neither of you said whether you believe that science can ever say that we must institute particular polices. The NGOs believe it can. Their policies are, they say, dictated by science. This is nonsense.

    4. I'm surprised that you don't recognize the Arnell business. Rajendra Pachauri has parroted it in just about every speech he has made in the last five years.

    5. SB: 'However did you miss them?' Er, don't get it.

    6. MT, as well as being Pondian, your mystification is probably partly WG1-ian. You are mostly interested in WG1 stuff. The worst Genghising has to do with impacts.

    I'll be busy for a few days. If required, I'll substantiate the above next week. (Or try to.)

  6. 1) I come to bury the press, not to praise it.

    2) You haven't connected the dots here. If you show that NGOs which have a lot of clout say things that are obviously wrong (in the way that the vast majority of the naysayer literature is obviously and flatly wrong) or even dubious, then there is something to talk about. If the ones with clout and the ones with bad information are the same then there is something to talk about. I'm not saying this isn't the case. I'm just saying you haven't indicated that you have a case for it.

    3) This is word play. Be serious. If science says an asteroid is hurtling toward earth and someone says "the evidence dictates that we need to put a program in place immediately to divert the thing" that is not time for philosophical hairsplitting.

    4) Still no clue. No time to look it up today.

    Pachauri is an interesting case. I think that firing him now would be tantamount to surrender to calumny. Perhaps we could do better, but under the circumstances of 2009-2010, IPCC could not replace him without encouraging the harpies and giving the press more reason to take the barrage of grotesquely false allegations seriously.

    He obviously bobbled the Himalaya melting thing; he should have said "probably that is more made-up nonsense" in that noisy impromptu press encounter. Not qualifying statements is the sort of thing that gets scientists thrown in jail these days, I guess. But it's hard to get every single unrehearsed statement right.

    No idea what "the Arnell business" is at this time, though.

    5) N/A

    6) I am interested in moving beyond WG I stuff, which should indeed be treated as mature and essentially "settled", to use the naysayers' favorite attack word.

    I think the latest WG II report was dreadful. Have said so before. Will say so again. It's not about errors. It's about cogency. The thing is worthless.

    But the attacks on my WG I colleagues continue. This is a real problem for science, and not conducive to getting a clearer estimate on WG II and WG III priorities. I am not sure (per your #3) that a purely quantitative approach will even work. That is what we WG I types mean when we talk about "the conversation we ought to be having". That is, emissions must stop as soon as is feasible - how soon is that, and how do we achieve it? The ideal path depends crucially on the impact and mitigation spectra. A satisfactory path is not too far from that ideal that is politically viable.

    But instead of discussing how we get to a roughly satisfactory path, we are debating whether we need to do anything at all. Which is flatly so stupid that for a few moments when I wake up every morning, I find myself wondering whether it was a bad dream, just some crazed projection of my subconscious fears.

    Alas, it is real. Despite high hopes in the days of my childhood, humanity has regressed to rank stupidity.

  7. 2) You haven’t connected the dots here. ... If the ones with clout and the ones with bad information are the same then there is something to talk about.

    I hadn't connected the dots there but they are the same NGOs. Did any of their bad info ever affect legislation or policies? Hard to prove either way.

    3) This is word play. Be serious.

    It's not word play. There may be only one way to tackle an approaching asteroid but there are several ways of tackling climate change and each of those several ways has many variants and options. Saying that the science says that we must, say, cut the UK's carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 is nonsense.

    4) The 'Arnell business' is the claim that climate change will increase the water-stress of 75-250 million Africans by 2020 (or, if you are Christian Aid, push 250 million Africans into poverty).

    Whatever the timing of his departure, Pachauri needs to spend more time with his family.

    6) But instead of discussing how we get to a roughly satisfactory path, we are debating whether we need to do anything at all.

    Well, do we? That's a necessary debate. I happen to think that we do - that adaptation shouldn't be the whole answer and that we ought to be doing a bit of mitigating, but you could make a case for simply dealing with BAU when it arrives.

    (You won't make America 'get' global warming until it has abandoned its foundational notion of being a special case, a nation uniquely founded on the unique principles of this, that and the other. Good luck with that.)

  8. It’s not word play. There may be only one way to tackle an approaching asteroid but there are several ways of tackling climate change and each of those several ways has many variants and options. Saying that the science says that we must, say, cut the UK’s carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 is nonsense.

    Yes, there are all too many degrees of freedom, but the upshot is that the great majority of emissions must be eliminated as soon as is feasible. 80% over 40 years seems like a good estimate of the best we can manage. 70% over 30? 90% over 60? Fine.

    Business as usual? It is impossible to fairly interpret the evidence that way.

    There may be more than one way to blow up the asteroid, but in that case the science is pretty clearly indicating that we ought to pick one of them.

    Forgive me. I really appreciate engagement from people I disagree with. But I disagree pretty strongly with this. It looks to me like misdirection and prevarication. I hope it is just honest confusion.

    the claim that climate change will increase the water-stress of 75-250 million Africans by 2020

    This seems entirely plausible. South Africa is smack in the southern subtropics and alone could account for the bulk of that. Morocco and Algeria on the other side. I think 75 M is a pretty safe bet, really. What is your problem with the claim?

    you could make a case for simply dealing with BAU when it arrives.

    Only if you aren't looking at the evidence fairly. The suggestion is not workable, to put it mildly.

    You won’t make America ‘get’ global warming until it has abandoned its foundational notion of being a special case, a nation uniquely founded on the unique principles of this, that and the other. Good luck with that.

    This is a real problem, but fortunately the most pernicious aspects of it are a recent perversion and can in fact be reversed. But anyway, you can't not solve an existential problem, easy or hard. America has played well with others in the past and will have to do so again.

  9. MT: 'Forgive me. I really appreciate engagement from people I disagree with. But I disagree pretty strongly with this. It looks to me like misdirection and prevarication. I hope it is just honest confusion.'

    I can see how someone who believed that climageddon is imminent might see it as an irrelevant quibble but I don't believe climageddon - human civilization and possibly humans themselves going extinct - is imminent so I think it's valid to object to the abuse of science. Even when someone is presenting the best and most up-to-date science in support of a particular policy (and NGOs often don't) it is simply wrong to say that the science says that any particular policy is right. Things are more complicated than that. The 'The Science Says' crowd are trying to bypass democracy.

    MT: 'What is your problem with the [Arnell] claim?'

    Quibbling again, I'm afraid. The numbers were wrongly calculated (can't remember what they should have been), they applied to the combined effects of both population growth and climate change (with the former being the larger effect) and they applied to 2025, not 2020. Apart from that ...

  10. You may include me in "the science says crowd".

    The science says the CO2 problem is (to first order) cumulative. That is why there is urgency, and why there is a need for severe cutbacks in CO2 emissions and for research into removing ambient CO2.

    I don't think this point is widely understood, and until it is, we will continue headlong toward a disaster with no precedent. Human extinction is probably not in the cards, but very great and irreversible losses are. The only silver lining I see to continuing the tragedy of the commons without intervention is that arguably the survivors will end up living on earth like we would live on the moon, so this at least will be a great boost for human expansion into space. There will be no particular reason to stay here.

    Admittedly that is guesswork. But the idea that we can dig up all the fuel until we reach 4x CO2 or higher without any serious regrets is almost certainly wrong. And the idea that we have ample time to forego avoiding that outcome is as well. That, indeed, is precisely what the science says. Do you doubt it?

  11. Hooray! Pachauri trotted out the mangled Arnell quote yet again during his Doha speech.

    http://unfccc.int/files/meetings/doha_nov_2012/statements/application/pdf/cop18_pachauri_cop_address.pdf

    Count the ways: 75 to 250 million should have been 90 to 220 million, 2020 should have been 2025, the extra exposure to increased water stress was due to the combined effects of climate change, population growth and, I think, economic growth, not climate change alone, and the extra exposure was gross, not net (many millions - about 100? - were expected to benefit from reduced water stress).

    Could someone have a word in his ear? He needs a new factoid.


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