Grant McDermott bio photo

Grant McDermott

Assistant Professor
Dept. of Economics
University of Oregon

Email Twitter LinkedIn   Scholar   ORCID GitHub
Bob Murphy's whole spin on the Heartland / Peter Gleick affair really bothered me. At first, I just dove straight into the responses without doing a lot of back research, or even retracing my own steps in coming across the leak. Having done that now, I can safely say that I feel even more confident of my main assertions. In other words, I hold that Bob's article framed the climate debate in very misleading terms, while he was glibly uncritical in his analysis of 'Team Skeptic'. I also continue to hold serious doubts over claims that Gleick wrote the false strategy memo.

However, I want to leave such matters aside today and follow up on (what I take to be) the central theme of Bob's post. In particular, the idea that the "alarmist" blogosphere betrayed a major misunderstanding of the skeptic position via its  fixation on the bogus strategy memo. Or, in Bob's words: "[I]t reveals that these people really have no idea how their opponents on the climate issue actually view the world. So when they dismiss skeptics as having no legitimate arguments, it should make outsiders take pause."

In rebutting this claim, I'm going to divide up this so-called "alarmist" blogosphere into three categories, based on their coverage of the Heartland saga. By doing so, I aim to show that: (1) A number of very prominent pro-AWG blogs and websites didn't cover the leak at all, (2) Others did, but paid little or no attention to the fraudulent strategy memo, and lastly (3) Of the bloggers that did cite the memo, the vast majority were very quick to acknowledge its compromised nature and remove the offending content from their websites. These and some additional facts should seriously cast doubt on the notion that climate skeptics are more reasonable and judicious than their opponents.

This post continues under the fold...

1) No coverage of the Heartland leak at all... Or late, disinterested coverage at best

The first thing that needs to made clear is that a number of very prominent climate blogs (typically run by actual climate scientists) didn't post anything on the Heartland leak. Or, if they did, it was in entirely dismissive terms. This list of disinterested parties includes: Real Climate, Open Mind (Tamino)AWG ObserverThings BreakJames Annan, Idiot Tracker, and The Cost of Energy (Lou Grinzo)... All, of whom, loudly promote the mainstream AGW view and spend an inordinate amount of time refuting skeptic arguments. So, even if you want to contend that the false memo was seized upon by everyone that did pick up on the Heartland leak... you are still left with an uncomfortable sample of significant players that are innocent of such charges by default. As it stands, the former assertion is hardly true,  as we shall see next.

2) Focus on the legitimate Heartland documents

Our second category includes blogs that did comment critically on the Heartland leak, but actually ignored the fake strategy memo and rather focused on the authentic documents. Retracing my own steps here may help to contextualise things a bit...

The first that I heard about the Heartland leak was on Twitter, when someone linked to the breaking coverage on the Think Progress blog. [Note: I don't actually subscribe to any TP accounts, so it was a retweeted link.] I've since gone back to check these original articles and, sorry Bob, but there's no mention of the fake memo at all.  Brad Johnson's initial post focuses exclusively on the "K-12 denier curriculum" and the NIPPC report found in authentic documents. His second post is all about funding going towards an Anthony Watts' temperature stations project, something verified by Watts himself. That bête noire of non-alarmists skeptic bloggers everywhere, Joe Romm's first post on the subject largely underscores what Johnson has already said  by pouring scorn on the K-12 education plan. Again, this was all related to authentic documents and had nothing to do with the bogus strategy memo. Since Bob was trying to show how gullible "alarmists" were for swallowing the juicer quotes of the memo, it's actually worth quoting Romm here: "Personally, I was skeptical of these docs, at least until I read the [authentic] 2012 Fundraising Plan, which attacks the temperature station data of the “the National Aeronautics and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).” That kind of error is classic Heartland."

In addition to education plans and funding operations (see Climate Science Watch as further example), another group of climate bloggers focused primarily on the Heartland's dubious status as a 501(c)(3) charitable enterprise, which bestows tax breaks and other benefits \(-\) despite marked irregularities i.t.o. the institute's lobbying record. The leaked documents were thus seen as confirming evidence already put together by John Mashey. For good examples of what I am talking about, see Scott MandiaBarry Bickmore, Hot Topic, Tim Lambert (Deltoid) and even George Monbiot.

In summarising this category then, there's certainly ample reason to challenge Bob's assertion that the legitimate documents "weren’t damning enough" on their own... Let alone the notion that "the initial discussion by the pro-intervention climate bloggers [focused] almost exclusively on quotes taken from the bogus memo, not from the legitimate documents". Further to the various links that I've already included above, a number of pro-AGW blogs have challenged this line of thinking too, e.g. here.

3) Citation of fake strategy memo

Now, to be sure, there undoubtedly were a lot of climate bloggers/writers that did make liberal use of the bogus strategy memo and its "juiciest" catchphrases, i.e. dissuading teachers from teaching science and/or keep opposing voices out. Apart from the two examples that Bob names in his article, DeSmogBlog and Leo Hickman (The Guardian), this list includes: Deep Climate, Skeptical ScienceRichard Black (BBC), Greg Laden, Eli RabbetCarbon BriefPhil Plait (Bad Astronomy) and Stoat. And, of course, Twitter was abuzz with catchphrases from the leak as well. (Personally, I don't think that trawling through Twitter can really produce much insight, since it is basically designed as medium where unfounded speculation can run wild. Plus, as every good Tweeter knows, rewteets ≠ endorsement, so it's even harder to separate out people's underlying motivations...)

Having said that, virtually all of the above were very quick to update their blogs once the strategy memo was fingered as compromised and, for the most part, actually removed all of the offending content from their webpages. Many of them had also quoted from the strategy memo while emphasizing that the authenticity of the documents had yet to be confirmed. I invite you to click through on those links for yourself if you aren't convinced. I should also say that I follow a lot of the above blogs and these updates/corrections left me in no doubt as to the strategy memo's fraudulent nature. I'm pretty sure that the same message was received by anyone who was paying attention. My other reaction was that if the documents were genuine, then it was quite likely a very careless choice of words in much the same way that "Mike's Nature trick" was. I'll touch on that further below...

Now, at this point Bob might be tempted to respond: "Uh, Duuuude... That still supports my argument. It doesn't matter if they took the offending passages down, since these bloggers had already revealed their ideological blind spots by being duped by the outrageous statements in the first place!" A couple of rejoinders to this possible criticism:

First, I don't think that Bob was arguing along these lines. Just have a look over his original post again... He actually credits some organisations for removing the compromised material and then specifically criticizes DeSmogBlog for leaving its original post up "with not even a nod to the controversy". [Note: This latter charge is not strictly true. They are, however, doing themselves no favours by clinging to the document's supposed authenticity IMHO.]

Second, the context provided by Heartland's background and the leaked documents themselves is all-important. In spite of what Bob calls the stratgey memo's "oozing absurdities", I argued in my previous post that reasonable people have cause to be suspicious of Heartland's motives, given the institute's dubious record when it comes to scientific evidence and industry lobbying. I still maintain that this is a valid line of defense when confronted by charge that pure ideological blindspots run deep within the pro-AGW camp. However, thinking about it now, I actually missed the more crucial context... The strategy memo was one amongst twenty documents; the rest of which have all been established as authentic. In terms of volume (pages), they count less than two percent of the overall material. Everyone would surely have been more circumspect if the strategy memo had appeared isolation... Or, if it hadn't been corroborated \(-\) in superficial terms at least \(-\) by the reams of legitimate material. A Trojan horse is much harder to spot in a paddock of stallions.

I want to close out this category by drawing attention to the fact that a number of AGW bloggers and commentators actually did express caution about the legitimacy of the strategy memo, even before Heartland cried foul. For instance, see Michael Tobis (Planet 3.0), who called the dissuading-of-science-teaching passage "presumably just a sloppy edit" and drew an obvious parallel to the embarrassing phrasing that Phil Jones used in his hacked CRU emails. Tobis' post also includes a revealing quote from the science writer, Chris Mooney: "[M]ost of our ideological opponents think they’re actually right about the science, which means they would not want to prevent science from being taught, but rather prevent what they view as biased environmentalist science being taught. That there is no indication of this here is very, very striking." Now, you might have a go at Mooney for (apparently?) coming down on the wrong side of the issue, but his quote clearly flies in the face of the notion that the pro-AGW faction has completely distorted view of their skeptic opponents. You can also see this post that Mooney authored himself, which further urges caution about the documents' authenticity. And, of course, it would be remiss not to mention The Atlantic's Megan McArdle... who was "awesome" in her coverage of the whole Heartland affair (according to some random punter called Bob Murphy). Despite her strong AWG convictions, McArdle was arguably the foremost voice in expressing skepticism about the strategy memo's authenticity.

---

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY:  The pro-AGW blogosphere simply wasn't as reactionary and gullible during the Heartland affair as Bob makes out. I'm not claiming that there are no ideological biases on that side of the debate, or that proper caution was always exercised in highlighting some of the wilder comments from the fake strategy memo. Sadly, this debate has become so polarized that mistrust of the opposition is an endemic problem on both ends of the aisle. However, it is very disingenuous to suggest that skeptic arguments haven't been seriously engaged and dealt with by the mainstream scientific community. The Heartland Affair has done little to change my views climate change, except perhaps to reinforce a simple axiom: The best that we can do is to hold ourselves accountable to same standards that we would expect from our opponents.

PS - In the interests of conciliation, Bob writes in the introduction of his post: "[F]rom my outsider perspective, it seems that the people warning of imminent catastrophe are vastly overrating the likelihood of their dire forecasts". Allowing some leeway for semantics \(-\) although I assume that Bob's definition of "imminent catastrophe" does not diverge too far from mine \(-\) I do not disagree. Indeed, as I have tried to point out, neither would some of the world's leading climate scientists.