Recognizing and Coping with Lies


Gavin has an interesting rebuttal of an atom of denialist rubbish at RC:

However, in one of the comments from a “Dr John Cameron, St Andrews” (posted 9/Oct/2012), there was this unrelated pseudo-factoid:

As regards the catastrophic sea level rise in the Pacific, it became obvious some 20 years ago that results from island tide gauges did not support computer predictions. Scientists from Flinders University in Adelaide set up new, modern, tide-gauges in 12 Pacific islands to test whether there was in fact any evidence of sinking. Recently the whole project was abandoned as there had been no sign whatsoever of a change in sea level at any of the 12 islands for the past 16 years.

Now this is specific enough to probably actually refer to something real, but doesn’t pass the sniff test for something that might actually be true. Scientists don’t set up monitoring stations only to get the answer they want and then stop monitoring if it doesn’t happen. This only happens in the fevered imaginations of conspiracy theorists. So I was intrigued enough to investigate what this actually referred to…


Gavin eviscerates the claim smoothly: “every piece of concrete information in the Gray/Cameron statement is wrong” and in conclusion raises the crucial question:

. Sure, no single statement like this is likely going to change anyone’s mind about anything, but this one and others like it form part of a drumbeat of disinformation, which by repetition, becomes embedded and hard to shift.

A good question would be why I bothered to research a claim in an obscure comment, on an obscure letter to the editor in a regional newspaper I have never read, and I don’t really have a good answer. Clearly, looking for substantive points in newspaper comment threads is a bit of a fool’s errand, but I was still surprised at how completely wrong every single aspect of the comment was.


It’s in this context that I keep reviewing the recent mind-bogglingly awful thread at Kloor’s that has made me give up (or at least adopt a stance of giving up, we’ll see) participation there. I am still processing that fiasco, as well as the fact that over there I am perceived as an “alarmist”, while over here I keep worrying about how to build an audience for sustainability issues without pandering to alarmism.

If you follow that thread, I’ll ask you to consider that I expressed no opinion about Fred Pearce, and was blissfully unaware of his role in the “climategate” business until Keith (to my clueless confusion) bizarrely brought Mike Mann into the conversation. As far as I was concerned, Tim at Deltoid had long since amassed convincing evidence that there was a long-standing lie that had been cynically constructed to tarnish the reputation of Rachel Carson. The primary interest of the DDT matter to me, distinguishing between sustainability and environmental protection as different pursuits as I do, was its role as an example of an amazingly cynical and meanspirited lie aimed at necessary and fruitful regulatory action in protection of the commons.


The thread continues to be a wellspring of examples of various classes of specious (sometimes ludicrously specious) arguments.

Consider this one:

Prior to reading this thread I was actually not strongly on either side, and I’m still not. I just object to the character assassination (ala Lambert, TB, and now you) of anyone who dares question politically correct dogma on this or any other issue.

This is the culture gap between political and scientific argument in a nutshell. Science says that some questions can be settled. Settled is different than proven. Science (as opposed to applied mathematics, with which some people with exposure to textbook science unsurprisingly confuse it) proves nothing, ever. But it can settle things. It can reach and crucially does the point where a few hypotheses are sufficiently established that they need not be revisited unless and until conflicting evidence arises. But also, it can easily and quite ordinarily reach the point where a great many alternative hypotheses are refuted.

That is, the history of the relationship between DDT and malaria, though complex, is immensely well-studied and reasonably well understood, and the evidence flatly contradicts the claims about tragic consequences of DDT bans commonly being made. It is not dogmatic to insist that refuted arguments be dismissed.


Einstein’s quotation is the key to genuine skepticism: “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

That is, skepticism is not only about being willing to be proven wrong. Scientific skepticism is also about being willing to acknowledge extant disproofs. A failure in that regard is colloquially known as “beating a dead horse”. Contemporary journalists do this dead-horse-beating habitually.


When saying that a journalist has failed when they state that something is arguable, one is not being dogmatic. One is making an assertion about a disproof. There is a sense in which it is fair to assert that science never offers proof, but there is no true sense in which science never offers disproof.

Thus, the argument about Pearce’s irresponsibility in this matter hinges only only on the existence or nonexistence of an effective refutation. If one exists (as Tim has long since convinced me it does) then it is not dogmatic to insist that the refuted position not be reported as arguable. It is a journalistic failure. Nobody’s perfect, but a pattern of such failures shows the journalist to be on the wrong beat.


What’s especially interesting to me about Gavin’s rebuttal is the “sniff test” aspect of it. Most science reporters who are not scientists (Justin Gillis and Elizabeth Colbert being notable exceptions) do not seem to have sufficient contact with what I call the coherence network of scientific thought on their beats, for a “sniff test” to work. Claims simply don’t ring true or false to them. Those of us who have been surrounded by some aspect of scientifically robust material sometimes, we often can spot a lie that nonexperts might consider plausible.

I wonder if Kloor or Pearce even understand this. The nature of how Gavin spotted the lie is something I wish journalists would ruminate upon.


If a person is unfamiliar but interested in a matter, they may say “some people say A and some say B. Some of the A-sayers suggest that B is refuted but I myself am new to the subject and have not been able to follow their argument.” This is not irresponsible (I do it frequently enough!) though far less helpful than determining whether the refutation is sound.

We live in a world where many people lie with considerable skill. Indeed most of them manage to convince themselves that they are not lying. What we do about it on the present scale is a crucial question. What we don’t need is people saying “there are arguments for A and arguments for B”, giving A and B equal credence, (and getting a major media soapbox to do it!) when in fact B is refuted. That constitutes a failure to perform the task which society delegates to journalists.

Nobody is perfect, but people who are stubborn about their failures should not be considered competent, regardless of their intentions or their perceived bona fides among the journalistic community.

The image, from Gavin’s article, shows positive  sea level trends from stations that were claimed discontinued in 2006.



  1. As with all things, Eli was there first As a matter of fact he is going to give up posting for reposting.
    Uncle Eli has always admired astronomy, botany, and zoology as sciences with important amateur participation. By nurturing the large community of those interested in the science these fields have built important support groups, and amateurs have made important contributions. Many amateurs become obsessed with relatively narrow and previously trodden areas. Within those areas their knowledge often exceeds that of professionals. To Eli the most important thing is that people get to experience the joy of science. . .

    What amateurs lack as a group is perspective, an understanding of how everything fits together and a sense of proportion. Graduate training is designed to pass lore from advisors to students. You learn much about things that didn't work and therefore were never published [hey Prof. I have a great idea!...Well actually son, we did that back in 06 and wasted two years on it], whose papers to trust, and which to be suspicious of [Hey Prof. here's a great new paper!... Son, don't trust that clown.] In short the kind of local knowledge that allows one to cut through the published literature thicket.

    But this lack makes amateurs prone to get caught in the traps that entangled the professionals' grandfathers, and it can be difficult to disabuse them of their discoveries. Especially problematical are those who want science to validate preconceived political notions, and those willing to believe they are Einstein and the professionals are fools. Put these two types together and you get a witches brew of ignorance and attitude.

    Unfortuantely climate science is as sugar to flies for those types.

  2. Einstein didn't know any inductive logic (Bayesian reasoning). Most of general relativity is established beyond a reasonable doubt, only some aspects of black holes remain uncertain.

    Would that journalists would study the rudiments of inductive logic. It is, in a way, a rationalization of common sense. The problem with 'fair reporting' is that common sense is abandoned. Alas.

  3. Instead of talking about "lies", PR gurus specialized in political hit jobs might arguably prefer to talk about "untruths". Here's an example:

    > John Rennie, writing in Scientic American [...] did the exact same thing as Al Gore -- citing Arrhenius' first prediction without mentioning his later, lower figure. As you will see in Climategate, untruths get recycled by both the great and the good -- when they think no one is watching them.

    This excerpt comes from **CLIMATEGATE, The CRU Tape Letters**, p. 15.

    Notice the bad hominem sideswipe at the end.

  4. I have a lot of sympathy with what Pearce and Kloor are trying to do. I do think some of the 'dogmatic' positions taken up green groups can be quite harmful.

    But when criticising people for lack scientific rigour it is essential to ensure that you don't fall into the same trap. The same goes for accusations of tribalism. The early exchanges between Things Break and Kloor are particularly embarrassing.

    Perhaps I am missing some of the history between both of them but the difference between what Kloor says and how he acted could hardly be larger.

  5. Apologies, an un-formed rambling braindump. There's some digging to be done into the recent resurgence of DDT + GM related stories. I got myself tangled in the GM stuff (defending the tech in the face of what I and others considered a badly misinformed protest) but pull that thread and a whole lot of baggage comes with it. e.g. old Monbiot stories about marxists-turned neoliberals starting science lobby groups (also active during the recent Rothamsted protests) or the GM Watch stuff. Climate scientist Simon Lewis was wondering on twitter: "perhaps it's important to ask of scientific experiments: is this the science of the 1%. Or the 99%", suggesting that any attempt to separate science from the issue of control or money was not possible. (Ironically plenty of climate deniers would completely agree.)

    Then shortly after we start seeing the 'environmentalists can be just as scientifically illiterate' meme; e.g. here's Keith in April. I was kind of saying the same thing myself back in 2009, but just to make the obvious point: "it's quite possible there's an even spread of scientific knowledge across the political spectrum, but if your political leaning tends to make you sympathetic to climate change theory, you won't show up on anyone's radar as 'anti-science'." The issue of GM just happens to highlight some other places where that normal spread of scientific literacy exists.

    But then DDT appears. I dug out this 'Progressive Vision Green Monitor' pamphlet I got given at a climate skeptic event a few years back, thinking "oh, this basket of issues again. Coincidence!" Progressive Vision is now defunct, I think, but the authors were self-described 'classical liberal' Shane Frith, director of the Institute for Economic Affairs Mark Littlewood and Sam Collins (who I can't find anything on, looks like he was their researcher). Here's a gallery of the pamphlet; text only just readable, apologies, but gives an overview of the topics: golden rice, DDT, GM, Palm Oil, BT Cotton, economic development in general. A great line: "Greenpeace has consistently worked to block new power supplies in Africa." Uh huh.

    Delingpole sits at one extreme: Rachael Carson is 'environmentalism's answer to pol pot', maybe responsible for killing 50 million people. But the same theme runs through each of these rightwing takes on what they see as environmental sacred cows: they're actually responsible for killing the world's poorest or ruining their chances of a decent life.

    But recall, that pamphlet was being distributed at a climate 'skeptic' event. I want to avoid doing what Monbiot or GM Watch did in those links above: it's quite possible to spin this stuff out until it becomes 'verdict by innuendo', but it does make getting at reality all the more complex. With GM, for instance, it's quite possible to be a potentially useful plant tech and for massive corporate interests to propaganda carpet-bomb. Here's a google search of Monbiot's stuff; he's done a massive trawl, including this apparently paid-for astroturfing of a Nature paper "which claimed that native maize in Mexico had been contaminated, across vast distances, by GM pollen".

    So it's not like companies affected are likely to be taking no interest in how these conversations are going (just as many have thrown their wealth at climate FUD) and it does present a mind-numbing wall of complexity. In an ideal world, we'd be able to bring together opposing views and find some common ground - e.g. I don't agree with Steve Easterbrook's take on the 'take the flour back' protests. But isn't there some way to work out who's wrong, or what parts of the argument can't be reduced to that? Given the howling storm of FUD and politically lock-in bundling of concepts, I don't know.

    Depends partly on the goal too: correcting one's own misconceptions is a very different thing to dealing with a hegemonic misrepresentation. The two are connected somehow: we can't create an effective political culture without tending to our own minds. But then there's the sort of consistently churned out lies of the UK coalition or Krugman: "this is really scary. It means that if these people triumph, science — or any kind of scholarship — will become impossible. Everything must pass a political test; if it isn’t what the right wants to hear, the messenger is subjected to a smear campaign."

  6. Oops: "the sort of consistently churned out lies of the UK coalition or Krugman" should read:

    "the sort of consistently churned out lies of the UK coalition or the 'war on objectivity' described by Krugman"

    Didn't mean to imply Krugman's lying!

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