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A Quick Lesson on Identifying Psuedoscience in the Popular Media

Discussion in 'Energy, Environment, and Policy' started by tigerade, May 16, 2014.

  1. tigerade

    tigerade Member

    May 14, 2013
    TL; DR:
    - Daily Caller has thrown it's credibility to the dogs and has made a mockery of science
    - A sadly high number of people are embracing the deception
    - Said people are also celebrating their alleged "defeat" of science
    - The consequences of this aggressive ignorance could be the fall of the human species
    - Tigerade is becoming increasely discouraged at this jawdropping spectacle

    The phrase "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is one of the most popular phrases that we know famed astronomer Carl Sagan for. So as I outlined in the "Solar happenings" thread, the website Daily Caller made a pretty extraordinary claim that the White House Solar Panels Can Power Small TV For 44 Minutes | The Daily Caller. I am still waiting for that claim to be substantiated. I am not an electrical engineer, but the little I do know about electricity makes the claim that a 6kw solar array system can only power for a small TV for 44 mins very hard to believe.

    But that is not the reason why I am making this thread. I know that I have a reasonable, mostly scientifically savvy audience here at TMC, and with that I had kind of hoped I would get a really good example of how the current media is perpetuating pseudoscience to mislead the public. Well, the Daily Caller managed to jump the shark in such an amazingly audacious way as to provide an enormous example of this within just 24 hours. I will show you three "science" articles from the Daily Caller, and I tell you that I really cringe when I call them science articles. But I don't want to just make the case to you why these are awful, or wrong, but I want to show you how I can tell that these articles were engineered to mislead you.

    Let's start off with the first one I saw: Scientists Debunk White House Global Warming Report | The Daily Caller. When I first saw that my reaction was "Debunk? Ohhhh really?". I was of course skeptical of this extraordinary claim, but I was willing to hear out to see if the Daily Caller was going to provide extraordinary evidence. I won't focus on the article itself, but rather on the "study" that the article cites. It's called "NCA Rebuttal" or "Scientists Respond to the Obama Administration's National Climate Assessment". I'm actually not sure what the report is called, or even if it is a report at all. The first alarm bell I see is that report doesn't say how their research was conducted, or what methodology was used for their findings. From what I can tell, it appears as if someone went through a bunch of articles, copy/pasted any pretty-looking charts and graphs that looked helpful, and posted factoids that they think fit their argument.

    It's horribly amateurish considering the paper is written by the country's top climatologists. But wait! That's because it's not written by the country's top climatologists. In fact, I only saw that the document was signed by one maybe two climatologists, who may not even practice it anymore. The rest are meteorologists, engineers and economics professors. I'm sure they are perfectly good at whatever field they are actually works professionally, but just because somebody is a good economics professor does not make him a practicing climatologist. But at least the document properly cites the research they are referencing right? Of course not. That is a huge no-no. Every published scientific article I've read has citations at the bottom - this one doesn't.

    I suppose it does "cite" some articles, including this golden line: ""Detailed rebuttals of such government claims can be found in reports available from CATO, CEI, Climate Depot, Heritage, ICECAP, TWTW, and WUWT.". REALLY? You are asking the reader to go to an INTERNET BLOG? Again, extremely unprofessional for a published, peer reviewed scientific paper. But wait, that's just it! I do not see any evidence at all that the article was independently reviewed by another team at all. It looks like the "fact checkers" don't seem to like the idea of being fact checked themselves. And as far as publishing in a scientific journal, again I see no evidence that this is even a real scientific article in a real scientific journal. In fact, I don't see any reference of it on google outside Daily Caller and right-wing blogs. This seriously appears to me as something that was written out of thin-air.

    I bet you are wondering what I think about the content of the paper. Pretty damn terrible. It is seriously doing some pathetic cherry picking to a new level. One of the "rebuttals" is that state temperature records disproves that the world is warming. Another claim is that that "our claim is highly cyclical". I have never read a real climate study saying that climate is cyclical, it's way more complex than that. Another claim points to a supreme court statement (What??). Anyway, enough with this garbage. Time to the next one.

    Here's the second gem of my day:
    Where Did '97 Percent' Global Warming Consensus Come From? | The Daily Caller

    It starts off with this line:
    First off, John Cook is not a climatologist nor does he claim to be. Surprising the article can't even get that right, it says that right on Skeptical Science's about page that he is a climate change communicator but that is not the same thing. The Skeptical Science Team.

    Another is this:

    Wow. Well first thing I can do to debunk this claim is refer to a study that is not even Cook's - a 2010 study by William Anderegg - Expert credibility in climate change . And the fact that the study surveyed scientists themselves (and got the same 97% number) is not what I want you to focus on, but the fact that the article is actually professionally written with citations at the bottom. This is what real scientific articles look like. Anderegg's study surveyed 1,372 scientists who had researched climate change professionally, and found that "Preliminary reviews of scientific literature and surveys of climate scientists indicate striking agreement with the primary conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC): anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been responsible for “most” of the "unequivocal" warming of the Earth’s average global temperature over the second half of the 20th century."

    So you don't even have to look at Cook's research, or believe Cook for that matter. There are other studies that say basically the same thing. But let's look at the study that this article cites. It's called "Climate Consensus and ‘Misinformation’: A Rejoinder to Agnotology, Scientific Consensus, and the Teaching and Learning of Climate Change". You can read the abstract here, if you wish. This one was actually published in a journal called "Science and Education", which I had never heard of before, so I don't know what kind of review process they have. Anyway, their basic claim is that Cook's study really shows that only 0.3% of climate research papers endorse the claim that greenhouse gases are causing global warming. If this is such a groundbreaking paper that has truly moved the Earth beneath the feet of scientists, then it must be highly cited right?

    Well, to casually compare.. I'll just use good old fashioned Google Scholar. This is not a professional study by any means, just a casual look to see how much a research paper on the scientific consensus on climate change has been cited by other scientists.

    First one I'm looking at - The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change (Oreskes 2004)

    It has a total of 901 citations on Google Scholar. Meaning that out of 901 research papers that were made by other scientists, they felt this paper important and relevant enough to be worth a citation.

    Second one I'm looking at - Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change (Doran and Zimmerman 2009)

    This one was cited 233 times.

    Third one is the one I showed you before - Expert credibility in climate change (Anderegg et. al 2010)

    This one was cited by 261 other papers.

    The last one is the one by Cook and others - Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature

    This is cited 61 times per Google Scholar.

    And how about the one from the Daily Caller? - Climate Consensus and ‘Misinformation’: A Rejoinder to Agnotology, Scientific Consensus, and the Teaching and Learning of Climate Change

    Again the Daily Caller asserts this is such a groundbreaking study that it debunks all the previous studies I just mentioned, but amazingly the study has been cited by other researches how many times? ZERO! F***king ZERO!. Yes, the Daily Caller is saying that this is awesome study, which is apparently not even posted outside of right-wing blogs and news cites, debunks all the previous studies on the scientific consensus regarding climate change. That is such as an audiatious level of arrogance that I sit back and awe at it. Why do they really think that this study debunks all the rest of them? I really don't get it. This is not the best debunking I could possibly give of the Daily Caller's claims, just the quickest, as it's a Friday night and I'm tired.

    The third article from Daily Caller asserts that global warming is real and is actually good for biodiversity. Yes, the same global warming they "debunked" in the first article I mentioned (the cognitive dissonance of these people shocks me). Here it is: Global Warming Is Increasing Biodiversity Around The World | The Daily Caller

    The Daily Caller article basically claims that global warming (which is real I guess?) is increasing biodiversity. But Scientific American notes that "The meta-analysis showed that 40 percent of places had more species present, 40 percent had less and 20 percent were unchanged. In other words, the ecosystems of the current Anthropocene era are transformed, but just as diverse—so far anyway. We are living in a world of novel ecosystems." So basically, it just shows that biodiversity is holding steady for now, that life is changing, not dying out at the moment. Which is fine, but not indicative of the future, which could see severe loss of biodiversity if global warming continues unabated.

    So this is my rant for today. These articles, which are clearly engineered to decieve the public, are chocked full of more information than I could possibly have time to go through. Meaning, thousands of people are reading these articles. This is not a crackpot conspiracy website we are talking about here - this is a national news media outlet. I am seriously in awe of the Daily Caller throwing it's credibility into the flames and watching it burn. And it doesn't even care. Another thing is the thousands of people in the comments section of the article jumping up and down in glee that climate change is climate change is a hoax. And these people vote, which makes it that much more discouraging as my next President could be Marco Rubio, who so positively asserts that humans are not causing global warming.

    This is a scary time we live in. People don't care about the truth anymore. They don't care about science, reason, or evidence. People are only wanting to be told what they want to hear. It is the most horrifying thing I have seen in my 28 years of life. Yes, I said 28 years. Which means I will get to see the products of the climate change denial movement - which will likely be that continued efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions will likely fail and that the world will barrel towards a high-emissions scenario as fossil-fuel use continues to skyrocket worldwide. I feel there is so little I can do about - except talk to you - and other fellows who actually care about science without savagely attacking it for no reason.

    Well - I hope this was a valuable thread for you. Identifying and exposing psuedoscience is increasingly becoming an important skill. It's sad that it's necessary. I wish the planet had some sort of informational immune system were our species quickly embraced good information and rejected bad information. But bad information sticks around, gets projected, grows like a cancer and infects the heart and soul of humanity. And it could kill us if we are not careful - I will leave you with Carl Sagan's words that "combustable mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later will blow up in our faces". I don't want that to happen, and I'm open to any idea to stop that from happening.
  2. chickensevil

    chickensevil Active Member

    Jan 2, 2014
    Virginia, United States
    I am still not fully won over to the whole climate change being actually bad for us, since the climate changes... It's what it does. But I don't think we should pointlessly pollute the air and ground and water. I also don't think we should continue to deplete drying up resources when there is other options out there without it actually slowing us down.

    That being said, thank you for this write up. This does greatly help in spotting false articles claiming to be founded in science. I will remember these things next time I see some new study posted. I hate confirmation bias... I like to be right just as much as anyone, but I don't want to find myself trapped in bad thinking that would lead me to ignore truth because it isn't what I want to hear.
  3. physicsfita

    physicsfita Member

    Jan 20, 2014
    Ann Arbor, MI
    I know how you feel, tigerade. Nearly 20 years ago, I was your age, and I grad school. At that time, friends of mine working on climate change were already staring in shock at their computer monitors going "Oh, $#!+". At time, there was already strong scientific consensus that there was a problem (although there was debate about the severity), but it was fairly straightforward to discuss it with non-scientific friends and make headway. Then, the organized FUD campaign started in earnest.

    By then, I was teaching some astronomy classes. Part of doing the comparative planetology unit involves discussion of the greenhouse effect. Holy crap! I would suddenly be assailed by the talking point du jour emanating from various radio and tv personalities. I had to rework my classes to pre-but the arguments by showing their logical inconsistency and lack of evidence. When I would still get "but this famous radio/tv personality says...", I found the only thing I could do was to ask how many peer-reviewed journal articles that personality wrote. Fortunately, other students in the class would start to chime in, and social pressure would take hold.

    Near the end of my time teaching those courses, I started to get asked, "OK, so what car do you drive, then?" I had always driven efficient cars, but that motivated me to always getting the lowest-emission car I could afford that would work for my commute. It was great when I could finally say, "I drive a Prius." The usual response back was, "Oh, I guess climate change is a big deal, then." Actions speak much louder than words. Buying that car (which has just paid for itself in fuel savings, by the way) conveyed the seriousness of the problem in a way that all my pretty diagrams and graphs never could. (Hopefully, the Gen III vehicle will be available by the time my Prius has been driven into the ground!)

    The spiral of willful ignorance has continued -- I have hope, though, that it will implode. I just hope it will be soon enough. The more and more outlandish these talking points become, the smaller (but more rabid) the number that hold to such views. Once people they know start rolling their eyes when they cite the talking points, it will be the beginning of the end.

    Hang in there -- engage your friends. Keep pointing out the distinction between real and fake science -- it does sink in!
  4. dhrivnak

    dhrivnak Active Member

    Jan 8, 2011
    NE Tennessee
    The quote that the White house system will only power a 19" TV for 44min/day made it into the op-ed section of our paper. They also claimed the cost was $55,000. As a person who just installed a 7 KW system for $17,000 and use it to power our entire house AND electric car I knew the piece was absurd. So I wrote a rebuffing letter and in the first day I had three people look me up/stop by to get more information on solar. I know many times it appears we are fighting a losing battle against FUD but people are listening so we need to keep sharing the truth.

    And Tigerade is right the easy way to spot FUD is no references or a reference to a BLOG. If they do not cite real data 99% certainty it is garbage.
  5. tigerade

    tigerade Member

    May 14, 2013
    Thank you for the thoughtful replies. Yeah, I guess the best answer is to just keep fighting the wave of misinformation one day at a time.

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