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Lying on Climate

Fake news has become such an obsession that accusing people of lying has become as common as saying “Hi! How are you?” and I’m as guilty as anyone. I do it, I know it’s unhelpful, but I can’t stop myself. But at least I know it’s pointless, whereas most people doing it don’t realise it’s pointless, and they go on doing it, even though they’re plain wrong, and I’m right.

Take the hysteria about the Brexit message on the bus about leaving Europe and having 300 million quid extra to spend a week on the National Health Service. What was wrong with it? We give x billion to Brussels per year. Divide by 52 and you have the amount we can spend on the NHS per week instead, if we want to. How can that possibly be a lie? (Of course, it’s true that Brussels gives some of it back, but only if we spend it on what they tell us to, like subsidising some bloke with five organic goats starving on a hillside in Wales or giving a bung to social scientists to investigate attitudes to climate change.) And even if the figure was 200 million and not 300, what’s the point of fussing about it? It’s like – How much will the high speed train cost? or What’s a Banksy painting worth? Arithmetical accuracy is not the point. You can’t be lying when you’re speculating.

Now compare this obsession with accuracy with the discourse around climate change. Anyone can be misinformed, or mistaken in their judgement as to what might happen in the future. But take any journalist or scientist “informed on the matter” as they say, and ask them about the official enquiries into Climategate, or the state of small island nations, or the temperature trend in the Antarctic, and you know they’re going to lie. Not misstate, or exaggerate, or express a doubtful opinion, but tell monster porkies. It’s very frustrating, and I often feel how pointless it is asserting over and over again what a bunch of scallywags they are. Pointing out for the millionth time that Lewandowsky or Roger Harrabin have stated something that’s not true is not a sensible way for an intelligent person to spend their time.

I’ve been reading “The Great Terror,” Robert Conquest’s account of Stalin’s purges, and I realise it doesn’t have to be like that. Say what you like about Stalin, but he was a great stickler for the truth. Not the truth as you or I would understand it, but the truth as in: “Did you sign this confession admitting that you plotted to blow up factories and murder the Central Committee under the orders of the traitor Trotsky?” “Yes I did.”

Sometimes things would go badly wrong during the trial when a mistruth was found to have slipped into the testimony, as when the guilty person admitted to having met the Trotskyist spy in a café in Berlin that no longer existed. Then all hell would break loose, and half the NKVD would be confessing to having screwed up on purpose in order to destroy the integrity of Soviet justice in the eyes of the world. But they really did confess, no doubt about it. It’s in the trial records. No kidding.

Lying, and accusing others of lying, is a very middle class thing. It’s inherent in the hypocrisy and pretence typical of middle class society. If you’re at the bottom of the heap you may have to cheat and steal to survive, but you don’t have to lie about it, unless you’re caught. And those at the top of the heap don’t make statements that have a truth value at all; they issue edicts or commands or make ritualised utterances emphasising their power and authority. Spend half an hour watching Bloomberg or any business news TV and ask yourself: “Is it true what he’s saying?” and you’ll see the question has no sense. This is why the working class “gets” Trump and the middle class is so enraged by him. Trump goes: “Climate change is a Chinese hoax” or words to that effect (and the effect is what counts) and the working class chap goes: “Yeah, I get where he’s coming from,” while the CNN journalist goes bananas.

If you’re working in a factory making widgets for company A, no-one cares what you think about your widgets or anything else. But if you’re working in the office selling the widgets, you’ve got to pretend to believe that your widgets are better than Company B’s as if your life depended on it, until Company B offers you a better salary to believe the opposite.

And it’s not just with respect to rivals in a competitive society that one has to lie, but also with respect to the toiling classes who do the dirty work. The snake oil salesman has to justify his higher salary and status with respect to the poor blighter who has to squeeze the oil out of the snake in the first place. Central to our society are the millions of marketing men, advertisers, journalists, experts in public relations and a host of other specialisations doing what is essentially the job formerly performed by the market trader or the town crier. (Think of the modern sense of the word “trader.”) And they all went to the same schools and have the same IQs as the academics and members of the serious professions who enjoy the respect they lack. And they have the same education and IQ as the people who run things, and for whom they work, and who earn ten or a hundred times more than they do. That adds up to an awful lot of people in the system who are objectively successful and well-off, but who know deep down that they are impotent slaves and useless parasites of a system run by people no more capable or intelligent than they are. No man is a hero to his valet, or to his marketing consultant. In feudal times such middle manager types might be tempted to revolt, go Cathar or Lutheran, take a vow of poverty, or seek some such Higher Truth to justify the lie they know they’re living. Other will-o’-the wisps tempt modern man.

And it’s not just a salesman thing. The same devil-may-care disregard for objective truth is to be found throughout the professions which constitute the upper middle class. In some cases the lying is inherent to the job, as in case of the defence lawyer, the estate agent, or the newspaper editorialist. But it’s there as an unconscious substructure underpinning the work of the most honest and conscientious members of society. At the root of the useful and highly complex activity of the doctor, the judge or the artist is the shared unconscious and false belief that everyone who takes the right pill will get better, that the innocent will be let off and the baddies punished, and that putting a painting on the wall will somehow enrich your inner life.

This is not a judgement on bourgeois society, but just a statement of how the world has to be to work at any level more complex than slavery. Capitalism has evolved out of feudalism – just like that – and the actors involved are no more conscious of the process than the fish which spent a few million years patiently evolving legs. (Though the process is much more rapid, thankfully.)

Of course, society couldn’t work at all if everyone lied all the time about everything (as Epimenides the Cretan noted) and several professions have been specifically created to stop things getting out of hand, starting with the King’s Fool, who was allowed to speak truth to power because he was a fool. It’s noteworthy that Andrew Montford, Paul Homewood and ManicBeanCounter are all accountants (and no fools), and Steve McIntyre applied his formidable statistical talents to correcting a tendency to over-exuberant optimism in the mining industry. Even the humble market researcher frequently gets the opportunity to puncture the pomposity of his betters – people like marketing managers, advertising copywriters and graphic designers.

The thing that stops the whole system from breaking down is not some abstract moral principle of honesty, but the fact that people don’t (usually) all tell the same lie at the same time. Which is what makes the case of climate change so bewildering.

I try to imagine the first generation of climate scientists back in the seventies in their lab coats, gathered anxiously round some monster IBM machine juddering and humming as it spouts out a pile of neatly concertina’d bumf. “Eureka! they cry triumphantly; “We have the answer! Climate Sensitivity between 1.5 and 4°C for a doubling of CO2. Let’s tell the world.” “Four degrees! That’s jolly hot,” says one. “But that’s a pessimistic estimate,” says another, “I think it’s probably nearer one and a half.” “I’ll go for three degrees, says a third, because it’s in the middle, and I’ve got one of their LPs at home.” And so they argue the toss, as people do…

But apparently it didn’t happen like that. Straight away 97% of them got the right answer and they haven’t deviated an inch since, despite the blandishments of the fossil fuel industry. Headstrong, resolute, determined, like the figures on a superhero movie poster, but with little beards and paunches. So weird. Why does anyone believe them?

I’m equally bewildered by theIpsos MORI Veracity Index. Every year for the past thirty years they’ve been asking the public who, of the following professions, would you trust to tell the truth. The levels of trust are fairly stable over time, but vary hugely between professions, with politicians and journalists scoring lowest, with about 15-20% of the population trusting them. Among the top scoring professions, trusted by 80% or more, were doctors, scientists, and – bizarrely – hairdressers.

I mean, why? I trust the hairdresser to cut my hair and not my throat – but to tell the truth? That’s the last thing I want or expect him to do. (That was in 2018. Last year hairdressers were eliminated from the list. Too honest for their own good.)

Given that doctors and scientists are the most trusted, one might suppose that respondents are taking their desires for reality. After all, one wants to be able to trust the guy who diagnoses your illness or designs the atomic power station next door. But to get the diagnosis right, not necessarily to tell the truth about it. And why are scientists trusted more than engineers? And some findings make no sense at all, like the fact that TV newsreaders are trusted by more than twice as many people as are journalists. Who do they think writes the stuff they read on the teleprompter if not journalists?

The only explanation for the rankings I can find is in the age of the professions, and I mean age measured in centuries. Doctors and hairdressers have been around for millennia, (indeed, they were once the same profession) and so have scientists, if you mean people footling about with magic potions and speculating on the movements of the heavenly bodies. (Talking of which, why isn’t the oldest profession on the list?) While journalists and politicians are a recent invention going back only a couple of centuries, and estate agents only crawled out of the primeval swamp yesterday, relatively speaking.

If you take a sociological view of humanity (as opposed to the psychological view more attuned to Anglo-Saxon individualism) then it makes sense to imagine ideas having a longterm life of their own, traversing the centuries and resisting change in strange and unpredictable ways. Take Old Moore’s Almanack, published every year since 1697, and famous for its doomy day by day predictions of the weather and other noteworthy events for the coming year (it predicted 9/11 apparently, or maybe it just got the weather right on the day.) My dad, an engineer who won an award for something secret he invented for the Ministry of Defence, bought it every year, as no doubt his father and grandfather had done. He must have felt somewhat sceptical and even let down at the advent of the TV weatherman, who could only forecast two or three days ahead. No doubt others of his generation felt the same. “We beat the Germans, invented radar and the jet engine, and we can’t even get the weather right for next Thursday.”

Such a sense of loss might call for strong measures to bring some certainty back into the world. My dad certainly never heard of James Hansen, but he no doubt had a rational faith in things on the horizon then, like computers, satellites, and international co-operation via the United Nations. And lo, the IPCC was born.

A diehard sceptic like Professor Lindzen may say “there’s no such thing as an average global temperature,” and one understands what he means; but a social scientist, especially a Marxist one, like the late and much lamented moderator at WattsUpWithThat, Robert E. Phelan would say, with more accuracy, “The average global temperature is a social construct, like public opinion. It’s there whether you like it or not, because people say it is.”

In fact you could probably measure it just as well without using thermometers, by conducting a giant daily global opinion poll. “Hello, what’s the weather like where you are, measured on a seven point scale? Sweltering, gorgeous, balmy, so-so, parky, perishing, or freezing your bollocks off?”

Give the job to Ipsos/MORI and tell them to make sure the respondents are all five feet off the ground, not standing in sunlight and sheltered from wind chill, and you’ll get data Gavin Schmidt would be proud of.

15 thoughts on “Lying on Climate

  1. The sad but inevitable consequence of all the 97% consensus and “experts” lying about climate and their overegged predictions is that it makes the case for the antivaxxers and other conspiracy theorists to peddle their wares so much easier. The snake oil salesmen just have to list all the failures to show why scientists cant be trusted. It will drag down a lot of good research done by reputable people because they will be indelibly linked to the advocates who couldn’t tell the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Makes me think of Stephen Schneider and The Double Ethical Bind.’ …

    ‘Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both’ …

    Really? I thought doing science meant being honest , end of story. And in climate science that means stating your uncertainties, meaning yr solar effects and cloud unknowns, problems of model projections, sign and size of CO2 effect …

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Don’t get me wrong, I much enjoyed the ride, beautifully written, a real pleasure to read, full of interesting snippets and mini-insights and occasional humour. I have never been able to write so well (are you in some sort of competition with Jaime?) But what is the overall message? I already knew about the lowly position of journalists and scientists in those polls, yet I doubt those findings. From my point of view, many of the outpourings of climate science are on a scale from misleading and mistaken to outright lies and terminological inexactitudes (God bless Churchill). Yet my point of view on climate is a minority one; few follow it (and on my off days I think it is shrinking). Journalists (even the very few with any sciency background) have been recruited to spread the message and do so believably. With respect to climate, journalists and scientists are believed en-mass. So much so that people who otherwise would defend free speech find little wrong with our being branded as deniers and contemplate measures that would remove our ability to challenge the accepted view about climate chaos, climate weirding or whatever the Guardian chooses to call it this month. It’s not difficult to imagine that soon our views would be classed as criminal.

    BTW the oldest profession is midwifery, with shamanism coming a close second.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. ALAN

    I already knew about the lowly position of journalists and scientists in those polls, yet I doubt those findings.

    In fact journalists score low, and scientists score high. I’ve always thought that one of the reasons for journalists and politicians jumping on the climate bandwagon is to try and grab some of that trust that scientists have and they haven’t.

    I’m no fan of opinion polls, largely because the questions are often fatuous or too complex. The Ipsos MORI veracity survey has the advantage that it is one simple question, posed over thirty years, allowing for the study of trends. A thoughtful social scientist willing to take the trouble to analyse the data carefully and reflect on it could probably draw some interesting conclusions. Unfortunately such people don’t seem to exist. There’s no academic glory to be had interpreting someone else’s survey. Of course, that’s what Marx and Durkheim did, but how many peer-reviewed publications did they have to their names?

    The misinterpretation of polling is due also to the unrecognised class bias. All the people who read and interpret this survey will belong to the 8% of the population in the upper middle professional social class. The journalists they read and the people they interact with are not those known to 92% of the population. The same kind of error leads to survey material from polls of the entire population being applied to the 0.001% of the population who are active, informed climate sceptics. It’s an elementary error which would get you a fail in a first year statistics course, yet it’s made every day by Professors at Cambridge and elsewhere.

    Of course, I meant midwives. Why aren’t they in the survey? And isn’t shamanism a branch of science?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My error Geoff. I should have written “politicians and journalists” who have the low credibilities, and most climate scientists who ought not to possess high credits, but unfortunately do. As you say, journalists acquire status and credibility from science (I’m not sure politicians do, most have sold their souls), even if they mangle it in the translation. Often it’s not even a translation, just a cutn’paste jobbie (with added highlights). Scientists (and the institutions they work for) recognize the problem with science journalism and rectify this by providing results in pre-digested lumps. Journalists either reproduce as-is or ramp up the story/implications for added impact. Some of the worst science journalism comes from institutions, anxious to “big up” the significance of results achieved under their auspices

    I thought shamanism was received wisdom gained under the influence of alcohol, drugs, smoke or deprivation. What are you accusing climate scientists of? Surely not deprivation?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I can believe that there are those who lie about climate change and everything that connects to it. For some reason I find it harder to believe in the “liar for Gaia”. Thinking about it now, this may be because there would be no motivation to lie for Gaia unless you believed Gaia was imperilled, thereby creating a kind of paradox. This would obviously be the opposite of a wind-farm operator minimising the likely number of birds swatted out of the sky by their new development: here, the motivation is not Gaia, but quids.

    Also, I have a naïve belief in science as a process, even if not scientists as an elite class of humanity. At times the process has been found wanting, but naïve ol’ me can’t help but think that science will zero in on the truth in the end, no matter how much darting about it does beforehand. Rather than flat-out lies, climate scientists often seem to engage in unconscious but selective bias in their approach. I am cheered when a climate scientist does what they are supposed to do when a sceptic points out an error in their work (an example is the recent Resplandy et al paper with errors spotted by Nic Lewis). Scientists are supposed to pursue the truth, after all, not spend their time trying to prove they are right: there is, or should be, no stigma attached to being wrong, but kudos for admitting mistakes. On other occasions, honest mistakes take on an altogether different character when scientists “double down” rather than accepting them (naming no names in case he sues me).

    One other thing about lies and belief and trust: our opponents often seem incapable of understanding that intelligent people can honestly hold the belief that the threat of anthropogenic climate change is exaggerated. They do not trust us, perhaps sure that we DO secretly believe, but lie about it, perhaps because we disagree with the consequences of the truth – whether that be big government or our personal lifestyles being cramped or whatever.

    Of course, we have the advantage in that we are, despite being in a tiny and almost voiceless minority, right. Probably.

    Liked by 5 people

  7. “the Brexit message on the bus”
    So wilfully misrepresented so many times as a promise to spend that amount of money on the NHS.
    So many times have I said to people, “Go back and read the bus”.

    “The average global temperature is a social construct, like public opinion.” Absolutely right. There is no such thing as public opinion. The 24/7 media bombards us with messages which are harvested back from “the public” via opinion polls, which in themselves are subject to enormous bias of selection.

    I wrote this in 2007, published in “Energy and Environment”, available here without paywall:
    “Global Warming – The Social Construction Of A Quasi-Reality”
    http://scienceandpublicpolicy.org/science-papers/reprint/social-construction

    Original Paper at http://multi-science.metapress.com/content/v84152h64m5r36t5/
    GLOBAL WARMING: THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF A QUASI-REALITY?
    Journal Energy & Environment, Volume 18, Number 6 / November 2007

    Everything I said then has continued and multiplied, until the untruths have become truths.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. JIT
    Your “We are Right… Probably” would make a great motto for Cliscep, or for the whole sceptical “movement.” Of course it ought to be the motto of science, but it isn’t, which is why we’re here.

    DENNIS AMBLER
    I don’t agree that “There is no such thing as public opinion.” The bias comes not, I think, from selection bias but from misinterpretation. Phone a stranger and ask who they’re going to vote for, and you’ll probably get a reasonable answer. Ask for their opinion on a subject they never give a moment’s thought to, and you’ve got a sticky mass of formless matter you can knead into anything you want.
    I’ve never seen a social scientist give the slightest attention to the question of what it means to have an opinion. Is it different from a belief, a thought, an idea, a feeling? No idea. We’re just social scientists guv, doing a job. And paid millions to form our ideas (or beliefs, or whatever) for us, for the greater glory of our political masters. Radical journalists like George Monbiot used to care passionately about things like this.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. There are three ‘lies’ that I think of when reading this. (I didn’t entirely agree with Geoff as I trundled through so this is partly to try and tease those things out.)

    1. As Dennis repeats, “the Brexit message on the bus”

    2. President Donald Trump’s claims about the numbers at his inauguration

    3. Pre-president Trump’s famous tweet about CAGW as Chinese hoax.

    The middle one is/was simply ridiculous. I’m against lying. Please stop.

    I agree with Dennis about the message on the bus though. I think. Whatever, it’s never bothered me. It was a gross provocation. Stronger In admitted as much afterwards. They didn’t want to talk about the money going to the EU and this kinda forced them to do so. Brilliant by Cummings. And my consistency rating with other Cliscep readers is now in the toilet. I assume.

    Trump on the Chinese hoax is the worst or the best, depending on your metric. Brilliant. I won’t even try to explain.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. RICHARD
    We could do with a serious discussion about “What is Truth?” (and, unlike jesting Pilate, stay for an answer.) It is symptomatic of the hysteria around Fake News that no-one seems too interested.
    My meanderings above unfortunately obscured rather than illuminated what I think is a significant point or two:

    1) Only a limited number of types of statements can be considered either true or false. This may be the only useful finding of two thousand years of the study of epistemology (but I may be wrong.) Among those which can’t are almost any statements about the future “Tomorrow is Tuesday” is an exception.) Writing the above I realised how many statements come under this heading, not only almost the whole of the coverage of climate change, but even such a statement as “This is a good fridge” said by the salesman, which implies that it won’t conk out the day after you buy it. If I say it when it’s already installed in my kitchen, that’s another matter. Likewise “the science is settled” may be true today, but not tomorrow.

    2) My reference to class differences was meant to draw attention to Trump’s background. Everything he says makes some kind of sense if you imagine it announced in a board meeting. The Chinese hoax statement is brilliant, I agree, and probably unconsciously so. It is a clear enough indication of where the Chairman is going to lead the company – and it’s not towards making US products even more uncompetitive in relation to high pollution competitors. The numbers at his inauguration were an outright defensive lie which no-one in the boardroom was going to contradict, because it’s not important for the future of the company. Trump is an intuitive, which is fine for a company chairman, but disastrous for the POTUS. Being wrong may mean something far worse than a company going into liquidation. The fact that every inaccurate, untruthful or misspoken tweet is treated as a transgression of the Ten Commandments by journalists at the NYT or CNN merely suggests that they’ve been imagining him in court under oath since the beginning.

    It’s not surprising that scientists should be at the forefront of the attack on falsity (from Trump, or anyone else) since seeking truth is in their job description. They are also professionally prone to eliminating extraneous circumstances, whereas I’m arguing that the extraneous circumstances explain everything. (But it’s in the job description of lawyers and journalists too, so that thought needs developing.)

    To be continued under your new post.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Two quick points before shut-eye: 1) I need to read the original post more carefully. 2) Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate begins later this morning (Tuesday), Martin Luther King day having been completed. So

    Trump is an intuitive, which is fine for a company chairman, but disastrous for the POTUS.

    is way too negative for me. Steve Mc wrote after the killing of Suleimani

    “I think that Trump really is a skilful and experienced dealmaker, far more than his critics give him credit for.” And it’s not clear to me that subsequent events have shown that the brash NYC real estate guy and climate sceptic botched even this. I like very much what Victor Davis Hanson says about Trump’s authenticity here, despite his obvious flaws:

    Thanks for picking up Darwall’s critique on the other thread. Later!

    Like

  12. DFHunter: I found it very helpful in coming to terms with Trump, I must say. A genuine intellectual makes some great and much-needed leaps, compared to his peers. And the theme of authenticity, despite the lying, could be of further interest for Geoff’s thread.

    Like

  13. I promised to read the original post more carefully. Well, I have. And I was also helped by this from Geoff in response to Alan:

    The misinterpretation of polling is due also to the unrecognised class bias. All the people who read and interpret this survey will belong to the 8% of the population in the upper middle professional social class. The journalists they read and the people they interact with are not those known to 92% of the population. The same kind of error leads to survey material from polls of the entire population being applied to the 0.001% of the population who are active, informed climate sceptics. It’s an elementary error which would get you a fail in a first year statistics course, yet it’s made every day by Professors at Cambridge and elsewhere.

    Totally. On Trump

    This is why the working class “gets” Trump and the middle class is so enraged by him. Trump goes: “Climate change is a Chinese hoax” or words to that effect (and the effect is what counts) and the working class chap goes: “Yeah, I get where he’s coming from,” while the CNN journalist goes bananas.

    is very good *except* that middle class is surely too broad? ‘CNN journalist’ is in the 8% ‘upper middle professional social class’ isn’t she? Trump won by getting many in the middle class to vote for him and he needs to pull off the same trick this November. The impeachment circus has to be about blackening him enough that a small % of these folk swing it the other way.

    The place of lying in all of business I found unconvincing. Caveat Emptor and other beautiful developments of common law show us how to play the game. But I’ll be into Roger Scruton on all that if we’re not careful.

    Like

  14. Moonbat gives up. Catastrophe already here (= infernos in Australia, storms and floods in Brazil, Madagascar, Spain and the US, and economic collapse in Somalia caused…by devastating cycle of droughts and floods) so we (and the climate assembly) can all go home (and this may be before Moonbat heard about the disaster that will be the “doomsday” (Thaites) glacier). We are doooomed..

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/29/climate-targets-committee-on-climate-change-report

    Like

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