In June 2005, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. published an article in Salon and Rolling Stone where he claimed that a an ethyl mercury compound called Thimerosal, used as a preservative in vaccines, was the cause of an autism epidemic. As his proof, he pulled several quotes from the minutes of a conference of government scientists at the Simpsonwood center, as well as from an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report. Kennedy’s article caused quite a stir at the time, with proponents of the Thimerosal-autism link essentially claiming a conspiracy of scientists to cover up the “truth” about childhood vaccines. I decided to read both the full minutes of the conference, and the IOM report, and I discovered that the quotes Kennedy was relying on were taken completely out of context, and that the quotes in context (and in fact the full reports) showed the exact opposite of what Kennedy was claiming. The quotes, and the full reports, were in reality just indications of the uncertain business of science, some careless wording and (mostly) dishonesty in the way the quotes were manipulated and misrepresented by Kennedy. My two posts back then, Robert F. Kennedy Junior’s completely dishonest thimerosal article and Lies, damn lies, and quote mining showed the true meaning of (respectively) the Simpsonwood minutes and the IOM report. Science isn’t decided by taking quotes from scientists (in or out of context), it is decided through experiment and publication, so even if the quotes had not been out of context it still wouldn’t have “proved” that Thimerosal causes autism (although it would have raised some serious questions). In actuality, all the article showed was that someone with a preconceived conclusion can dishonestly manipulate small pieces of out of context data to prove whatever they want, and that gullible people (many also with preconceived views) are likely to believe them. Unfortunately, many still do.
I was reminded of the Kennedy/Thimerosal fiasco when I looked at the recent Climategate hacked emails. You know the ones. The leaked emails that proves, just proves I tell you, that global warming is a hoax, a conspiracy of lefty scientists, environmentalists and Al Gore. I’m not going to repeat the whole story. If you’re not familiar with the details read Climategate: the final nail in the coffin of 'Anthropogenic Global Warming'? It’s written by proud libertarian James Delingpole, who (according to him) “writes brilliant books and brilliant articles” and “is right about everything,” so you know you can trust him. Go read his article if you haven’t already read the quotes the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGM) dissidents are so thrilled about. He’s got them all.
The first thing I thought when I originally read those quotes was, “is that it?” I mean, seriously. The hacked emails are said to consist of 1073 emails, or about 1 million words in total. Delingpole quotes more of these emails than most, and yet by my count only 506 words. That’s 0.05% of the total. I can’t help wondering what’s in the other 99.95% of the words they don’t quote. They’re ignoring 99.95%! Presumably they aren’t as damning (if at all) as the 500 words Delingpole and many others have quoted (since presumably he pulled the “best” ones). And these 500 words aren’t really all that damning anyway. For example, much has been made of the phrase “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick […] to hide the decline…” Of course we all know that the word “trick” can often mean a shortcut, or a clever method of doing something, and doesn’t have to mean anything improper. And even if that were not true, a cherry picked 0.05% of some hacked emails doesn’t magically change everything so that the planet isn’t warming anymore and glaciers aren’t melting now like they were before the emails were leaked.
And that would be true even if the phrase "hide the decline" actually meant hide a decline in temperatures, when in fact it referred to a decline in tree-ring density – yes, the anomaly was that temperatures had increased (global warming) while tree ring density had decreased. So not only was this quote out of context (a trick is not necessarily something wrong), and irrelevant (since the world is still warming, regardless), it’s also factually incorrect (in that it doesn’t refer to a decrease in temperatures) too. To be wrong so many different ways takes some talent. (Actually, come to think of it, no it doesn’t.)
Back in June 2005, I decided to read the long Simpsonwood minutes and IOM report to determine for myself what they really meant. It took, as I recall, a couple of weekends of my time. I’m not going to that much trouble this time, and instead I’m going to wait for the results of the independent investigation. In the mean time, The Associated Press just got five reporters to examine the emails, as is reported in AP IMPACT: Science not faked, but not pretty. In summary, they say the leaked emails don't undercut the vast body of evidence showing the world is warming because of human activity.
In looking at how the so-called AGW “skeptics” have reacted to these emails, I’m reminded of a post of mine from February, Global Warming Denial. In it I referenced Denialism Blog’s What is Denialism. Of the five general denier tactics, I see two being used here, namely conspiracy and cherry picking:
But how could it be possible, for instance, for every nearly every scientist in a field be working together to promote a falsehood? People who believe this is possible simply have no practical understanding of how science works as a discipline.
Nothing more need be added there, I think.
Selectivity (Cherry Picking)
Quote mining is also an example of "selective" argument, by using a statement out of context, just like using papers or data out of context, they are able to sow confusion.
Given the way these emails have been reported by the so-called skeptics, that paragraph is quite prescient.
It’s clear that the AGW “skeptics” are in full AGW denier mode over this. No science, no evidence that global warming isn’t happening; instead they cherry pick quotes out of context to claim a conspiracy of climate scientists to hide the “truth” about global warming. Again, I refer you to my opening paragraph about how Robert F. Kennedy Jr. quote mined scientists to claim a conspiracy to hide the “truth”. And in that case the scientists knew their words were being transcribed and would be published. Imagine if Kennedy had been able to get his hands on some emails they thought would remain private. In reality, all this shows that kooks of the right (AGW deniers) are no different in the way they behave from kooks of the left (Kennedy, et al). The ever reasonable Steven Novella calls for calm and a cautious approach from the AGW “skeptics”:
For global warming dissidents I recommend that you put your rhetoric in check. The witch-hunt frenzy so far in evidence cannot possibly serve you well. If it turns out there was real fraud at the CRU, you will still be criticized for being prematurely shrill and you will lose credibility. Also, the more extravagant your condemnations, the more likely it is that the reality will not be as bad as you are stating – and therefore even if some indiscretions come to light, you will have actually softened the blow because they will not be as bad as the worst hysterical claims. And of course, if it comes to light that no real fraud occurred, the credibility of AGW dissidents will have been dealt a severe blow.
Yeah, well good luck with that idea. In my experience with AGW deniers, putting their rhetoric in check does not come naturally. Or at all. Furthermore, regardless of what the independent review reveals, I fully expect the AGW deniers (just like the mercury causes autism militia) to ignore any results that contradict their preconceived certainty that AGW is a fraud, and to smear anyone who does not agree with them. In fact, it’s already happening: the smears are already in on the authors of the AP review I referenced above. (Took less than a day.) Pretty funny – the so called “skeptics,” who have in the past criticized me for not being skeptical enough about AGW, have showed absolutely zero skepticism before launching into full blown “AGW is dead” mode. And for that, I call them “deniers” and make no apology for doing so. It’s not ad hominem (as they will undoubtedly claim); it is a simple statement that describes the way they are behaving.
I’ll reserve my final opinion on the leaked emails until the independent review is in. If it concludes that there was serious wrongdoing then I will certainly modify my opinion and comments to fit the new facts. But in the meantime, it isn’t clear if this is really Climategate or Deniergate (ie deniers overreaching). I suspect the latter. Unfortunately, although the scientists involved are going to be held to the highest standards (as they should be), the AGW deniers will get away with the usual logical fallacies, smears, lies and half truths. Whatever the results of any independent review, you can bet that there will be no one calling for an investigation into any dishonesty or fraudulent activities of the AGW deniers over this story. Whatever the result, they will get away with “Deniergate” (see if any news media outlet even uses that term, although they were quick to add a “gate” to “climate”). And, of course, that's what they are relying on.
The New Scientist: Why there's no sign of a climate conspiracy in hacked emails
RealClimate on The CRU hack
And finally, for some light relief, read Carbon Fixated’s Newtongate: the final nail in the coffin of Renaissance and Enlightenment ‘thinking’. Gravity – what a hoax that was.