Over at Making Science Public, Jennifer Metcalfe has a post on her recent paper, “Chanting to the choir: the dialogical failure of antithetical climate change blogs”, which has received some critical comment from the usual suspects.
Metcalfe’s study aims to estimate the management and quality of blog commentary at Jo Nova’s blog, to compare it with Skeptical Science. It adds to a substantial volume of work produced by researchers who seem, in my view, unduly preoccupied with blogs, with unauthorised discussions, and with ‘denial’. But for all that, it is interesting that such studies draw the ire of adjacent, if not entirely convergent perspectives. On the angry Consensus Enforcers’ point of view, the mere act of comparison of “credible” sources of comment and unauthorised commentary risks giving undue credibility to the non-credible. Even worse, Metcalfe finds parallels in the treatment of commenters from outside the ‘publics’ created by the respective blogs. I.e. Metcalfe discovers that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
This is, of course, verboten. A commenter who shall be known only as Ren Kice appears on the MSP blog with a theory of credibility, to defend the universe against ‘false balance’. In the circular terms of the special pleader, bent double with his head up his arse, SKS is right because it is right, and therefore, it can do as it pleases, whereas the lesser, non-credible commenters are subject to different rules of engagement.
The rights and responsibilities of those possessing ‘credibility’ are for them alone to decide, of course. But in my dealings with my far-superiors, I have always been struck by their shared characteristics. Such wisdom that falls from the dizzying heights that are claimed by the climate-anointed alone usually falls to Earth with more grace, you see.
I found all this interesting, because You will respect mah authoritah! is what Kice was banging on about during my first contact with him, way, way back in 2013. His hypothesis has not improved at all. But neither has science studies apparently made much progress, either.
I tried to post a comment at MSP, but there were technical issues. I have posted it here instead.
In reference to the enduring attempt to ‘keep the conversation civil’ while emphasising ‘the relative credibility’ of sites and their authors, blogs, climate blog archaeologists hoping to establish the functioning of such virtue and ethics may wish to visit the discussion under my 2013 blog post at
That post was itself spawned from my own contribution to Making Science Public, which discussed precisely that issue — the tendency of the climate ‘debate’ (such as it is) to become a battle of received wisdoms, ultimately at the expense of wisdom — the putative and contested objects of ‘science’ fading from the substance of those debates the more they emphasised ‘credibility’.
It was there, too, seven years ago, that the commenter was so driven to emphasise my lack of credibility — I am not a climate scientist — that he failed to notice the problem that the approval of two climate scientists of my post created for his own argument. As he wrote,
“The real problem seems to be that they feel that their views (in general) should have the same credibility as those of professional climate scientists…”
Perhaps worse, he (not a climate scientist) was driven then to depend on the opinion of a (failed) academic philosopher, a PHd candidate psychologist and a non-climate non-scientist (co-authors of the disputed work) for doubling down on his ‘keeping the conversation civil’. All of them had been angered by the suggestion (from a non-climate-scientist equal) that the 97% survey had been poorly-conceived, and further enraged that such a view had received approval from ‘professional climate scientists’.
It turns out that ‘credibility’ has nothing to do with ‘credibility’.
Seven years has perhaps not been sufficient time for deeper reflection on what ‘credibility’ might mean for the evaluation of contested perspectives in debates. It remains under-theorised, other than for some cod cognitive science that hypothesises a ‘gateway belief model’ of science communication, under the logic of which the expression of unauthorised opinion is an existential danger to the human race and all life on Earth. Any project that begins from such a premise can therefore be not unfairly compared to medieval scholasticism and its adherents compared to an angry mad clergy, concerned by the moral and political authority of an institution waning in the face of challenges to its objective and normative claims.
(NB, the comparison here is not between anyone and Galilei, but between self-appointed Enforcers of a new orthodoxy, and the excesses of the old Church. It is the fact of criticism, not its substance, which drives such anger.)
‘Civility’ might mean not speaking out of turn in a political order that demands deference and obedience. ‘Credibility’ might mean proximity to political authority. Evidence that this is the correct interpretation of those terms exists in the prolific output of the project. There is barely an online discussion of consequence in which it has not been over-represented. A project which is intent on establishing an orthodoxy — rather than persuading through debate — is manifestly a project which is advanced in bad faith. Hence it finds itself booted out of conversations which would be civil without its help — and which usually are, on the very rare occasions where it has been absent. That is to say that the point of the project is to poison debate across lines of disagreement, which could otherwise be both possible and good-natured. The point is not to punish the expression of denial, but to deny its expression by punishing any provider of a platform for discussion across those lines that might seemingly lend the unorthodox argument “credibility”, as though debate itself was apostasy.
Heated squabbles are of course an enduring characteristic of the Internet. Hence, it should not be a surprise that online discussion fora do *tend* to develop particular cultures as one or other ‘public’ begins to dominate. The above is a preamble that may, therefore, look like so much he-said-she-said — bitterness generated by half a lifetime of such heated debates. But the point (which I also made in 2013) is that the quality of climate debate does not improve as one moves away from the Internet. It is notable also that the dominant players in the broader climate wars are people based in universities, with letters before and after their name, often occupying very senior positions in institutional science and policymaking. I.e. they are not anonymous trolls, in basements, without anything better to do, though you would not know it from the quality of their arguments in public.
It is furthermore notable that, in contrast to the blogosphere, there are no counterparts — “deniers”, in the study’s terminology — in the broader public sphere. That is to say that “deniers”, in most of the world, including in the UK and Europe, have almost zero presence, much less formal representation on campuses, in institutional or commercial science, in mainstream political parties, in a constellation of civil-society organisations, in corporate lobbying, and on broadcast news media. Yet many of those seemingly respectable panjandrums will tell you otherwise, with a straight face, from institutions bearing the names of billionaire benefactors, that a conspiracy of private interests have distorted the public debate. Needless to say, they are unable to quantify their claims, much less to put those quantities into comparison with a project the scale of the climate agenda: supranational organisations, almost all western governments, all of the universities, all political parties and so on — and all their resources.
Are there even as many active climate ‘denial’ bloggers and commenters as there are researchers active in the science communications and science studies fields that make such blogs the object of their study? It seems very possible to me that there are not. And yet this possibility should invite a further comparison: the resources available to researchers are vastly greater than those available to bloggers. I write this comment on the research on time borrowed from scraping a living — as do most climate bloggers. Are my counterparts? Many,including the one preoccupied by ‘civility’ and ‘credibility,’ are tenured. In contrast, I can think of fewer than half a dozen FTE positions in the UK which are given to criticism of the climate agenda at all, none of which enjoy anything at all that resembles tenure.
Yet there seems to be an endless stream of ‘science communicators’ desperate to lead the public towards ecological utopia. There are armies of NGO hacks. There are hundreds of ‘civil society’ organisations and think tanks, in the UK alone, almost all of which, if they have taken a position on climate, have taken the pro-consensus position. Your chances of getting a job at any of those organisations, if you have a detectable sceptic view of the climate debate are zero.
What I am suggesting here is that any ‘research’ which makes “denial” the object of its study begins from an position of abandoning any sense of proportion. Researchers are forced to study ‘denial’ blogs because there is almost no other expression of ‘denial’ in public life. Yet ‘denial’ vexes researchers and their funders. Isn’t that worthy of study? Why does it provoke such institutional rage?
What is the proportion? How many green vs brown FTEs are there, engaged in *formal* climate debates? What are the resources available to them? I suggests that the difference is at least three, and perhaps as many as six orders of magnitude — even more if we are comparing bloggers to the whole enterprise. Blogs are seemingly the primary vehicle of climate scepticism, whereas the focus of the climate agenda is an annual conference, attended by nearly every government, every NGO, every global corporation, thousands of activists, scientists and journalists, from which critics are all but banned. And that is just the start of the pro climate agenda’s formal expression.
The disparity is sufficient to call academic preoccupation with ‘denial’ a madness.
It is a constant source of amazement to me, therefore, that recalcitrant climate bloggers are the object of “research”, which takes for granted the dominant categories of that overwhelmingly predominant orthodoxy: “science” versus “denial”. It seems implausible to me that a scientific hypothesis could unite so many hitherto disparate and counter-posed public organisations, nations, institutions and enterprises without a great deal of ideological glue. There is evidently more going on than ‘science’, and thus ‘research’ is much more than it claims to be.
Why are academic researchers so interested in establishing a critical understanding of ‘denial’, but not of the far, far, far more consequential orthodoxy? Why are the dynamics of blogs of interest to academics, but not the dynamics of intergovernmental fora and academia? Why are the psychological profiles of ‘deniers’ a matter for cognitive scientists, but not the psyches of green alarmists, spivs and chancers? Oh, and scientists?
Added to the failure to bring a sense of proportion to research, then, there exists a failure of good faith — ‘ethics’, if you will. So much research on how ‘denial’ is expressed, what motivates its expression, and how it may be defeated. But so little academic commentary is concerned with what has been said, and what it has been said in response to. No, it is not just a response to the claim ‘climate change is real’. It is just as much a response to an orthodoxy, the ascendancy of which has gone without scrutiny of any kind, as rooted in ideology as any 20th century political movement, the facts and consequences of which most academics seem wilfully blind.
Full disclosure: I think it is a dangerous ideological movement, made all the more dangerous by blindness to itself, and that is my motivation.
Guess what… Academia produces its own ‘publics’. Try it. Try being a critic of sustainability at any one of a number of ‘research’ organisations whose mission statement is ‘sustainability’. Try getting a grant for a study which reflects critically on, rather than promotes sustainability, from the ESRC. Try going to an academic conference and expressing a view that runs counter to the conference’s prevailing orthodoxy. Try getting a paper on it published. See for yourself if blogs are any more or less hostile to alternative perspectives than academe. If there are any substantial differences between what you observe in blogs and what can be seen on any campus, I will be surprised, and will agree that the dynamics of blogs are more worthy of study than the dynamics of research organisations, leaving aside the fact that ‘research’ organisations are called on to inform policy-making processes, and are funded by public money and legacies from politically-oriented philanthropic foundations whereas blogs — not ‘denial’ blogs, anyhow — are not.
And try the other fora too — the broadcasters, the civil society organisations, the political parties… And then tell me that blog-based research is of any consequence, and not a motivated distraction.