November 2009

If there is one good thing to come from the whole stolen CRU email incident, it is the way that the human-induced global warming denialist movement has been overrun with global government conspiracy nuts. “Climategate” is now being referenced on many New World Order conspiricist websites.

So Sahil Kapur was right all along. Those denying anthropogenic climate change are really little different from the 9/11 truthers. Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, had also realised this. Some science bloggers are comparing the quote-mining to swiftboating especially when it comes to the weak defence by the University of East Anglia (cf. Kerry’s campaign in 2004) but a more apt comparison may actually be the birther movement. As with truthers, moon hoaxers and climate change denialists, the birthers reject any evidence contrary to their beliefs. As noted by Phil Plait:

they call themselves skeptics, but they are far from it. Skepticism is a method that includes the demanding of evidence and critical analysis of it. That’s not what Moon hoax believers do; they make stuff up, they don’t look at all the evidence, they ignore evidence that goes against their claims. So they are not Moon landing skeptics, they are Moon landing deniers. They may start off as skeptics, but real skeptics understand the overwhelming evidence supporting the reality of the Moon landings. If, after examining that evidence, you still think Apollo was faked, then congratulations. You’re a denier.

Which is exactly what conspiracy nuts do also. And just as peak oil theory lost credibility when 9/11 truthers and NWO believers used it as a motivation for government involvement in the attack on the World Trade Center, the merging of climate change denial and NWO cults may actually have a detrimental effect on the anti-science lobby.

So how exactly should scientists react to conspiracy nuts and swiftboating. Should they spend their valuable time writing on blogs with detailed replies to deniers? Should limited grant funding be used up to mount an Obama-style PR offensive to counter the mistaken beliefs of the irrational ramblings of conspiracy nutters? Given that these conspiracy theories don’t require facts for peole to believe in them putting up website after website spewing forth facts is not going to do much good.

Perhaps the best thing scientists can do is to continue to do their job. The latest Science  podcast has an interview with paleoclimatologist, Michael Mann, and nowhere is there any mention of his role in the Climategate/SwiftHack affair *. And if the conspiricists continue making ridiculous demands of  scientists, perhaps another reaction is called for.

* (However, I do expect the conspiricist to yell cover-up when they learn Mann has renamed the Medieval Warm Period to Medieval Climatic Anomaly. That’s correspondent inference theory for ya.)

Now that the stolen CRU emails are being minced through the blogosphere meat grinder, a lot of what Richard Dawkins describes in this video will no doubt be occurring:

I expect we can achieve much higher quote mining ratios in climate science than Dawkins got in evolutionary theory. It’ll be a good comparison of the confirmation bias among Anthropogenic global warming denialists vs. fundamentalist Christians.

I am often surprised at the level of distortion that occurs when the conclusion of a statistical study is rewritten and edited for consumption by the wider news reading public. A case in point is the recent study by Dr. Luis Angeles, “Do Children Make Us Happier?” This is a statistical analysis of a life satisfaction survey that covered British adults from 1996 onwards. It found that children had little to no effect on life satisfaction for the population as a whole, however if divided into different groups then children tended to increase the satisfaction levels of married couples. However this is a statistical average – a fact that is often overlooked when the headlines get written:

There is certainly a lot of confirmation bias amongst journalists and newspaper editors. Those with a large family are especially prone to see only what fits in with their beliefs. If they had read the study in detail they might have noticed that children had an even greater effect on raising the life satisfaction of widows. Which leads one to wonder why no one came up with a headline that read: “The key to happiness is kids and a dead husband”?

There is so much temptation to infer direct causality, but even the author of the original research cautions against this when he concludes with:

One is tempted to advance, on the contrary, that children make people happier under the “right conditions”. We do not mean this as a moralistic defense of marriage. Instead, by right conditions we have in mind the time in life when people feel that they are ready, or at least willing, to enter parenthood. This time can come at very different moments for different persons, but a likely signal of its approach may well be the act of marriage.

This is an example of a latent variable effect. Angeles did attempt to explain this to the mainstream media:

Dr Angeles, director of the university’s Centre for Development Studies, speculated that the reason for the difference in happiness levels lay in whether children were planned or not.

He said: “People who have decided to get married probably have in mind that they want to have children.

“But in the case of unmarried parents, children might not be expected.”

So children tend to make parents happier if they were planned for, and married couples tend to be experienced practitioners of planned parenthood. It is not a surprise that married couples (who themselves may have spent a few years living together unwed) tend to be more experienced with the use of contraception than unmarried cohabiting couples. Experience grows with length of time spent cohabiting, married or not. But no survey is going to ask parents if their children were expected or unplanned. Marital status merely serves as an imperfect proxy for this.

Furthermore there is an element of survivorship bias when one realises that the married group excludes the divorced. Weren’t they once married? It is unlikely that their children were conceived after the marriage was dissolved. (We’re assuming that the remarried would fall into the married group.) So any previously married couples that broke up after a fall in life satisfaction don’t get included in the statistical average for the married group. In the study, children exhibit a very wide variance on the divorced group that included both negative and positive ranges.

And so the conclusion we should have made, yet is almost never reported in the news, is that children make couples happy if they are well prepared to be parents. Who knew?

The childfree should stand proud as this is what they’ve been saying all along: Only have kids if you really want them, are prepared for the parenting role, and all the responsibilities, demands on time and resources that entails.

Wow! A climate scientist takes Steve McIntyre at face value. I would never have had the patience for someone showing such disrespect for science especially when they take such care to design their blog posts so as to provoke others to draw conclusions
that climate science is all fraud, without specifically spelling this out literally in the original post. And by avoiding taking any steps to prevent their post from being interpreted in this pernicious way, is simply adding insult to injury.

Professor Briffa‘s patience is truly unfathomable. Although it could be argued that investing so much of one’s valuable time responding to Internet attacks on one’s reputation may only end up encouraging the denialists.