You do not have the right to waste my time

by Robert Nagle on 1/29/2010

in global warming,political rhetoric,Social Sciences

(If a person has redirected you to this page, that is because the person sending you here thinks that you have used one or more tactics described below and should seriously consider either reexamining your argument or   purchasing the Robert Nagle Ignorance Removal Services. My prices are very reasonable: $300 per hour with a required minimum of 1 hour).

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A few years ago a family member forwarded an email about the spurious claim that underarm deodorant causes breast cancer. That email infuriated me for various reasons. First, the email exhibited many of the classic characteristics of a bogus email.  Second, the truth of the email could easily be fact checked. Typing “breast cancer” and “underarm deodorant” in a search engine easily disproved this idea in less than one minute. When I mentioned this fact to the person who sent the email, he/she replied, “I was wondering if it were true.”

You were wondering about it!?!? You didn’t know whether a fishy story was true; therefore, you forward it to two dozen of your closest friends to circulate the half-truth more widely! How is that an example of commitment to truth? But this person did not preface the email by saying, “I’m guessing this is false; can anyone confirm this?” He/she simply passed it along unthinkingly.

When you do that, you are in fact using your reputation to promote this alleged  “truth.” You are tying people’s opinion of you to this piece of crap. So you better take the time to make sure you are  willing to stand behind it.

More importantly, you are wasting my time. And if you forwarded it to 100 people, you are wasting 100 people’s time.  I’ve noticed that people have different opinions about what constitutes a worthwhile email. Some  think an email of 100 jokes is justified by entertainment value. I don’t share that opinion, but at least I understand the motivation behind this impulse. (That is why good labeling in the subject line is important).

I have noticed (not only in email but on comment sections as well) that climate denialists will respond to solid science with URLs that purport to disprove some point or point to some counter-hypothesis, but in fact rely on some old tired argument long since discredited. When a person recently commented on a global warming thread by linking to a discredited petition, I immediately dug up the links about this petition. Then I realized, this commenter has already beaten me up  by wasting my time. Rescuing people from ignorance is a thankless and time-consuming job, but a blogger should not have to spend more than 3% of his time doing it. In a way, this person is like a troll because he/she is aware that dropping a URL into a comment requires less than 10 seconds  while responding to it is hard.  I try to be tolerant of political differences, but a blogger has a responsibility to prevent ignorance; he can’t just allow misinformation like that to stand on a blog without a response.  A few months ago, somebody I would describe as a crank left an incoherent economic rant on my blog in response to a short link I gave about TARP funding. The person left a long comment. It was not spam, but it was complete poppycock, dredging up some wacko conspiracy theory about currencies and gold and I don’t know what. After googling around, I found that the person did indeed have a blog, and was a ranter, so this rant was not exactly out of character.

Here was the problem with this ranter. I was not prepared to argue this point with him. To be more precise:  Just because this person wrote nonsense doesn’t imply that I needed to spend the time showing why he was  wrong. Maybe I should also be compelled to write a scientific explanation defending  the “theory” that  the earth is round!?  I am not an economist and although I could probably do some research to defend myself, it would be hard to win this argument without spending a lot of time.  I had not intended to make an argument, just to provide a well-chosen link to an insightful article.

Here were my options for responding:

  1. I could choose not to approve the article (that would be very easy).
  2. I could approve the article but would attempt a brief retort (with the knowledge that the commenter might try to engage me more)
  3. I could approve it, ignore it and hope another reader takes the time to write a counterreponse.

I ended up approving the response conditionally and emailing the person to ask him to post URLs to his post rather than write long comments on my blog. As it happens, yet another person responded to the crazy person’s response with an even crazier  response  (This second person was a well-known troller).

Regular readers will know that I have been blogging a lot about climate change over the past year. I certainly do not understand the issues as deeply as a scientist would, but I am familiar with most of the common counterarguments and tactics used by  denialists. Also, I have a pretty good sense of which kind of evidence is more authoritative, so  I think I would be capable of having a productive debate on the subject … for a while at least.  But why should I want to  – especially when the same denialist counterarguments are offered over and over?

When a debate is as big and important as climate change, you can expect a lot of “debunking articles”  and a lot of “Scientist X doesn’t know what he is talking about” articles to pop up everywhere. Many are by paid industrial scientists which though reputable may have an inability to see the big picture.   So here are my blog  rules about having a civilized discourse or dropping a link:

  1. Does it pass the smell test? is the person who wrote the article a qualified scientist or just an opinionator?  Does the headline actually reflect the actual evidence presented?
  2. Has the argument been addressed before? Skepticalscience answers most of the common counterarguments, and you need to check there first to see if has been answered already.  I also recommend searching at realclimate.org and climateprogress to see if the actual article has already been discussed.
  3. Is the article or research breaking news or is it simply old news repackaged as new? I have been emailed a link to an article or video by John Coleman several times about the so-called global warming scam.  On Realclimate or climateprogress they rarely take seriously critics like Ian Plimer or John Coleman or Lord Monckton. Yet they are commonly found on many denialist blogs as though it were new research.
  4. Has the source cited shown a tendency over time not to provide useful or accurate information? First check here, then check here. Let me explain myself. All science sites will have inaccuracies or opinion pieces with controversial statements. That is normal. It does not  not bother me unless the site  seems to prefer  scare pieces to reasoned analysis. Wattsupwiththat is one of the most notorious sites like that. So is climateaudit or climatedepot.  But in fact, it is rare that either site presents original research or analysis. More likely than not, they are citing arguments presented more exhaustively elsewhere. Similarly Marc Morano is not considered a reliable source, and even Fox News is not reliable in my book.   I will almost never take seriously anything from these sources.  In truth, these sites are perfectly capable of digging up and promoting legitimate skeptical arguments, so it would be folly to say that everything on these sites is wrong. The Internet makes it possible to bypass these sites and link to the original analysis. If the argument has intellectual heft, chances are that it has been discussed on a more legitimate site.
  5. Does the article you cite show an obsession with certain themes? Such as Al Gore, hockey stick, Climategate, weather stations, the IPCC conspiracies, water vapor, sunspots  or “people are just trying to make a buck off cap and trade”? (See more in this Global Warming Skeptic Bingo).   These are sure signals that the arguer is not engaging seriously with the issues – and is probably not even knowledgeable. Ad hominem attacks on Gore are not only wrong, they are irrelevant. The hockey stick was hotly debated but is now widely accepted after some data issues were resolved. Now the National Academy of Science vindicated it.  Climategate was a red herring and even if you accept all the accusations at face value, all you’ve accomplished is undermine one kind of proxy evidence; scientists have several other kinds of proxy evidence to prove their same points. IPCC may not be infallible,but it’s as close as you’re going to get in science (especially if you limit yourself only to the well-vetted scientific recommendations in the Working Group 1 portion, not the less reliable Working Group 2).  Water vapor and sunspots has been posited  multiple times as alternative causes, but the research hasn’t borne it out. Water vapor amplifies warming rather than forcing it.  The influence of sunspots is a well-known phenomena that scientists have learned to factor out when assessing trends.  This is basic climatology 101.
  6. Does the article accuse a prominent figure or group from reaping  personal or financial benefit from climate change research or green investments? Most of these types of articles exaggerate the importance of self-interest when making intellectual arguments. Does anyone seriously think that Al Gore is going to get rich from issue advocacy? (In fact, he gives a healthy amount to charity and his job as communicator involves highlighting ideas which he thinks are most workable – that is precisely what he is good at and what people want him to do). Do scientists get tenured jobs for promoting climate change? Of course. But they have to do it well;  if a skeptic also did it well, he would ultimately be able to find acceptance in academia provided his scientific papers are sound.  In fact 5 of the 10 companies listed at the top of the Fortune 500 list are fossil fuel industries (7 if you include 2 car companies – who arguably are vested in fossil fuels as well).  The amount of money that fossil-fuel industries have to throw around to cast “commercial doubt” on climate change science dwarfs the paltry sums available to academics and government researchers. Yes, researchers benefit from an academic career, but they are often dedicated people who make enormous sacrifices to conduct their research. I would never castigate an academic (skeptic or otherwise) simply for being an academic.  Cap and trade has its flaws – though they are often exaggerated. But the best counterargument to the self-interest argument is: how is an  accusation that  greens are motivated by self-interest any more pernicious than the fact that fossil fuel people are already motivated by self-interest today?
  7. Is the article tossing out too many arguments at once without trying to defend any one  of them? (That is known as the Gish gallop or —  in the words of my high school debate coach — the “shitspread”).  Lord Monckton is the prototypical person to do this.

Please ask yourself these questions when dropping a URL on my blog or sending me a random URL. You do not have the right to waste my time – especially if you have not bothered to do your homework. Believe it or not, I enjoy genuine skepticism – but only if you have taken the minimal  time necessary to make sure that the article you cited  is not  making some easily debunked claim.  I’ll be the first to admit that some articles can sound  incredibly persuasive — and turn out to be inadequate at closer inspection. Naturally I don’t claim to be an expert on everything; heavens, I would hate to be held accountable for articles I blogged about 4 years ago  (even though I probably did think it was insightful and reliable at the time I blogged about it).

Lots of controversial topics remain  in climate change science. Now is not the time to be distracted by well-worn and shallow arguments from the past.

I don’t enjoy trying to suppress arguments I disagree with. But if I feel you haven’t taken the time to vet your argument, then instead of responding, I will simply recommend a new  professional service I am offering:

The Robert Nagle Ignorance Removal Service

At the reasonable rate of $300 per hour, I will be more than happy to compile a dossier explaining in detail what I feel to be a reasonable evidence-based position on the issue and the essential fallacies in your  argument.

Keep in mind that I am not a trained scientist, but I will try to cite only sources from reputable journals or scientific bodies. I do not have subscription access to the most prestigious science journals, but I can use the city library or general science magazines or moderated websites like Realclimate to gather good information.

In order to request service, you will need to pay a $300 advance before I will even look at your issue. Otherwise,  stop wasting my time.

Jan 30 Update: A commenter correctly points out that I should not have used the phrase “obviously false” when describing the breast cancer-deodorant claim. I agree. Instead I should have said,  “probably untrue.”

March 10 2010 Update. See this incredible 70 minute analysis of the rhetorical problem of countering  climate denier  logic by science historian Naomi Oreskes. It is positively brilliant! See also Juan Cole’s piece about how to respond to irrational climate change arguments

August 28, 2010. For people who can’t afford my service, let me recommend these books:

(I’m sure there are countless others worth recommending, but these 3 stand out among the pack for me). Finally,  I’ll extend an offer which I make to all my denier friends. I would be willing to bet you up to $1000 that the 10 year average global mean surface temperatures between the decade 2000-9 will be less than the average of the global mean temperatures between the decade 2010-9. (Using NASA GISS Surface Temperature Data, with the important stipulation that the bet doesn’t apply if 2010-9 has 1 or more  VEI 6 volcano or  more than 2 VEI 5 volcano  during that time period. I’ll give you 2 to 1 odds on it. If you agree, we will have to talk about signing a promissory note that is legally binding in the state you are in.

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