He’s not a scientist…

In the United States, right wing politicians who want to gain the approbation of the lunatic rump of the Republican party while preserving their credibility with moderate voters have taken to sidestepping climate questions with the phrase “I’m not a scientist“.  In New Zealand a similar “that’s above my pay grade” strategy has been adopted by Colin Craig, a businessman turned politician, although the questions he dodges with it are a little different.

For instance, faced with a query about chemtrails in the “Ask Colin”  of his Conservative Party’s website, Craig admits to being “aware of the theory that chemicals are being released at high altitude for some nefarious purpose” but has a bob each way by adding “[I] don’t know whether there is any truth in this or not.” Likewise, asked about the reality of the moon landings by a journalist, Craig hedged again: he is “inclined to believe” they happened but “know[s] there are very serious people that question these things.”

Everyone has their limit, though, and Craig’s is the Reptilian hypothesis: he tells an interlocutor that he “can’t subscribe” to the claim that the world is secretly run by blood-drinking, shape-shifting reptilian humanoids from the Alpha Draconis star system. Craig follows this slightly tepid repudiation by saying “I hold a position similar to Carroll Quigley” who, as Craig explains, believed that the wealthy run the world for their own benefit.  However, Craig does not mention Quigley’s belief that “secret societies” help shape global events, which made him a favourite with conspiracy theorists, nor that he is revered by the far-right John Birch Society. (Even if you haven’t heard of the Birchers, you might know them by the way their fluoride obsession was memorably parodied in Peter Sellers’ Dr Strangelove.) Now, I am certainly not implying that Craig shares the peculiar beliefs of the John Birch Society, but an enthusiastic endorsement of Quigley is an interesting choice for someone rejecting a conspiracy theory. 

But there is one topic on which Craig doesn’t hedge at all. He is 100% bet-the-farm-on-it confident in his judgement on the complexities of climate change. Here’s an answer on the subject from “Ask Colin”:

1. Climate change happens for many reasons. Geological events (volcanoes) and astological [sic] events (Sun flares) to name but 2 have a large influence. Fluctuation of the natural environment and temperature is normal.

2. Man made carbon generation and other human activity does have an influence on temperature locally. Stand on an asphalt pavement in the middle summer and compare this to standing in an open field and you get the point.

3. However globally our influence on temperature is very very small. New Zealand’s influence is infinitesimally small.

Let’s skip over Craig’s mixing of astronomy and astrology, his proofreading, and his tenuous grip on the jargon (what is a “sun flare”?). Here he is, loud and proud, taking a firmer stance on global warming than he did on moon landings or chemtrails or even shape-shifting reptiles, happily embracing a position at odds with mainstream scientific and popular opinion. No wishy-washy “I’m not a scientist” talking points for Craig here; he definitively states that human activity does not and cannot affect the global climate.

Why is he so sure? What has he been reading? Who does he talk to? Did he dig into the literature himself? What due diligence did he perform in order to write off much of modern climate science more confidently than he rejects wacky conspiracy theories?

Craig points to an 8-page pamphlet that outlines the Conservative Party’s stance on climate. Disappointingly, it doesn’t explain how their heterodox policy was arrived at. However, perhaps we can find other places where the same sentiments are expressed. For instance, the pamphlet includes a story about Canute, under the headline “We could all learn from this…”:

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Conservative Party pamphlet.

Conservative Party pamphlet.

On first read, the story feels a little pre-digested, and sure enough a quick Google search reveals that tale is told in almost exactly the same words in William Bennett’s Book of Virtues.  We could all learn from this that it’s important to cite your sources. (By the bye, I’m not sure a story about a king who couldn’t stop the sea rising works as a parable about the follies of climate alarmism, but let’s press on.)

Exploring further, the pamphlet also contains a helpful climate quiz:

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Conservative Party pamphlet.

Conservative Party pamphlet.

Several of the questions and answers are uncontroversial — yes, C02 makes up 0.04% of our atmosphere, yes we would miss the greenhouse gases (including water vapour) if they vanished, and yes the pre-industrial climate was far from constant. Others are carefully worded — whether “nearly all” scientists agree on climate change depends on the definition of “nearly all” — and on the whole, the overall quiz reads like a pencil and paper push poll.

In this case, googling for key phrases turns up Global Warming: Ten Facts and Ten Myths on Climate Change by Robert M Carter. Ignoring minor editorial changes, Questions 7-10 (and perhaps bits of the others) are amongst Carter’s facts and myths. In particular, the phrases “[N]early all scientists agree that it [climate change] is occurring, and at a dangerous rate”, “The Kyoto Protocol will cost many trillions of dollars […] but will deliver no significant cooling”, “Prior to the industrial revolution the Earth had a stable climate” and “Carbon dioxide […] the primary forcing agent for temperature increase” are found in both Craig’s quiz and Carter’s “facts and myths”.

Robert Carter is a New Zealander now resident in Australia, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Carter is also a fairly well-known “climate skeptic”, and was a member of the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition. Both Carter and the coalition were reportedly funded by the Heartland Institute, which turned to climate skepticism after its previous business model — denying the links between tobacco smoke and cancer — became unsustainable. These “myths” have not been peer-reviewed, and paint a picture at odds with the global consensus on climate science.

Carter’s “myths” can be found on many websites (and given the New Zealand connection, the Conservatives may have got them directly from Carter himself) but if you search for them on Google the first hit is a 2009 posting on GlobalResearch, which also has a fair bit on chemtrails and a full range of other wacky conspiracy theories. 


When asked about his potential coalition partner’s apparent flirtation with conspiracy theories, Prime Minister John Key wondered if Craig was “winding up” the media by dropping hints about chemtrails. Possibly Craig’s patter is simply a dog-whistle to kooky potential supporters (which is not particularly attractive, but it wouldn’t be the first time a politician had done it) but if it is a wind-up, it is certainly a very thorough one.

Given the current state of the New Zealand electorate, Craig’s party stands a chance of being part of a coalition government. It is worth asking how did the Conservative Party arrive at its positions? Who did it consult? Where does it stand on evidence-based policy-making? Perhaps we should “Ask Colin”?

Postscript: And if you haven’t seen Dr Strangelove, hurry to the video store or the internets.


http://BerkeyWaterStore.org = clean water for pennies a day… ” Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face. ” – General Jack D. Ripper Other Fluoride Youtube videos: Doctor Speaks Out Against Fluoride http://youtube.com/watch?v=3fk5wkcd_Ik Fluoride Fight!

Let’s Do The Space Warp Again…

Just under a year ago the internet cranked out dozens of stories on NASA’s efforts to develop “warp drive”  technologies. And just under a year ago, dozens of scientists and science bloggers explained that while Einstein’s general theory of relativity let’s you describe a warp drive, that doesn’t mean that the universe will let you build one. I blogged about it, as did many others. 

And this week it’s back – for a sampling, check out CNN, Huffpo, io9, Gizmodo and the Washington Post. The recent outbreak of stories is not fueled by a breakthrough in the lab, but simply by a set of renderings made by Mark Rademaker, who posted them to Flickr:

This is NASA's new concept spaceship for warp drive interstellar travel

The pictures are undeniably cool, but they are more fiction than science. The NASA project is being led by “Sonny” White, and involves something called a White-Juday interferometer. I did a back of the envelope calculation last year, and couldn’t see how White’s claims stacked up, nor has the interferometer been described in a peer-reviewed paper. (And looking back, my analysis was over-generous by a factor of trillions, since I assumed that the system had a kilogram worth of “negative mass matter”, a preposterously large amount for any lab-based setup.)  Conversely, I am not aware of a single reputable scientist who takes this project seriously. 

Rademaker himself appears to have worked pro bono, but NASA is spending tax dollars on this project (not a lot, but some) at a time when real missions are being cut. However many hits this generates, NASA is squandering reputational credit on junk science and serious outlets are running this clickbait as news without applying even the most cursory of sniff-tests. I wish it wasn’t true. 

Pig Wrestling

A side-effect of working on the Big Bang is that I get a fair bit of crank mail (to use the technical term), a few crank phone calls, and even the occasional crank visit. These cranks – or “independent investigators” – usually believe they have solved abiding mysteries in cosmology and theoretical physics, or demolished some key tenet of modern science. Relativity and the Big Bang are popular choices.

The crank community is not a small one. Counting the people who have contacted me directly since I moved back to New Zealand, my country’s crank cosmologists clearly outnumber the portion of the local scientific community that works on the evolving universe. (And before you make any jokes I am sure this is true globally but it is easier to conduct the “census” in New Zealand.) In fact, there are few pieces of science so well-settled that you can’t find someone to disagree with it. The Flat Earth Society almost perished along with its guiding light Samuel Shenton but it was recently resurrected, and there is an active community that believes the Catholic Church should have stuck to its guns on the geocentric solar system

Young cosmologists learn fairly quickly that engaging with eccentrics and their pet theories is generally not a good use of their time. My own experience is that “independent investigators” are almost always courteous, decent people. However, they appear to enjoy dissent as much as they enjoy grappling with the deep problems of physics. Consequently, they are rarely overtly upset that they cannot change the opinions of mainstream scientists, and will hold on to their positions in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The advice I give my students is not to wrestle a pig; you both get muddy, but the pig enjoys it. 

Last weekend’s NZAS conference saw a thoughtful discussion of how science communicators should respond to heterodox opinions. For scientists, the default position is often the deficit model, which tacitly assumes that once they are provided with the facts, people will naturally align themselves with the position of the scientific community. This is hardly surprising: the lecture is a natural medium for scientists and while it smacks of an argument from authority, it is an authority we respect and are likely to believe we have earned. Unfortunately, this approach does not work on its own; if it did, the Flat Earth Society would long since have died out. Worse yet, in some cases this strategy can actually harden beliefs.

A second theme of the conference was climate: the meeting opened with a screening of The Thin Ice, a film about climate change. Likewise, the recently released IPCC report on the impacts of climate change argues strongly that this is a vital public-policy challenge. If a person turns their back on the Big Bang they are missing out on one of humanity’s greatest adventures, but no-one will get hurt. But anti-vaxxers, large chunks of the alt-med crowd and, it increasingly appears, climate denialists are putting human lives and well-being at risk. 

Denial has two main approaches. The first is to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt; one can point out that (for instance) climate science is hard and the models are not exact, that is not clear what we should do about climate change even if it exists, and that surely our hospitals and schools provide more pressing and immediate concerns? By contrast, the other approach is one of outright ridicule of science and the rejection of settled, incontestable results. The latter tactic is less common in New Zealand than in the United States, although the Conservative Party’s Colin Craig seemed to take a step in this direction when he told an audience that “whether the sun has a hot day or a cold day ‘is by far the biggest influence‘ on the Earth’s climate.” It’s possible that the Dominion Post has mangled Craig’s words here, but it is hard to square what he reportedly said with anything that remotely resembles the scientific understanding of the weather, the climate system or solar physics. (Similarly, radio host Mike Hosking appears to live on a planet with different laws of physics to those that apply on Earth.)   

The failings of the deficit model of science communication are clear, so identifying effective, alternative strategies is vital, especially at the points where science intersects with public policy. To my eyes, denialism thrives when people see science as an institution with which they have little connection. Deficit-based science communications may inadvertently reinforce barriers between science and this sector of the public. If so, part of the solution lies within ongoing developments in the scientific community. Open Science promises to make science more transparent, enhancing rigour and repeatability. It is easy to say that no-one would eat sausage if they could see it being made, but a sausage-factory with a window is more likely to be a sausage-factory that is spotlessly clean and uses top quality raw materials. Moreover, science is never unanimous, and Open Science may permit a more nuanced understanding of how scientists disagree, and when these disagreements are meaningful. Likewise, embracing diversity among scientists (and our students) will produce a scientific community that looks more like, and can thus fully engage with, the society it’s a part of. 

I suspect that the solution also involves letting people engage with science with no agenda beyond the excitement of science itself.  If – as I saw last weekend – people of all ages and backgrounds can play with ferrofluids, watch a 3D printer at work, imagine driving a rover on Mars, explore an ecosystem in which whales are nourished by plankton, or look a the surface of the sun through a solar telescope, they can get a sense of how science explores, explains and makes use of the natural world. And if people engage with science for the sheer fun of it, they are much more likely to take it seriously when it needs to be heard. 

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Postscript: During the discussion at the NZAS on the deficit model, I realised it had implications for my own writing on, say, the dangers of Wi-fi or homeopathy. In those pieces, I aimed to focus on how ostensibly evidence-driven institutions, such as journalism or government, deal with these fringe concerns, rather than simply mocking someone for being wrong on the internet. But the question of tone and persuasion is something I’m thinking about.