The Heartland Institute Crankfest

There is no way I could let the Heartland Institute’s Global Warming conference go by without comment, especially since it’s so beautifully conformed to my expectations of what a gathering of cranks would be like. I think DeSmogBlog’s coverage has been the best.

But back to my expectations, we have experts of dubious quality speaking to a group of people that clearly have no ability to judge sources (from the WSJ ):

Given that line-up, and the Heartland Institute’s stated mission–“to discover and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems”–two of the presentations seem a bit jarring: They’re given by Vladmir Putin’s science advisor and Mr. Putin’s former chief economic advisor.

We have the complete disregard for synthesis – that is, real scientists don’t get together and celebrate their complete inability to create a cohesive picture of the data (from the NYT article

One challenge they faced was that even within their own ranks, the group — among them government and university scientists, antiregulatory campaigners and Congressional staff members — displayed a dizzying range of ideas on what was, or was not, influencing climate.

This is a feature of cranks we discussed in our Unified Theory of the Crank almost a year ago. There is no interest in creating an explanatory theory or framework to incorporate the data into a useful picture, just a desire to crap on that which they don’t want to hear.

It explains the tendency of cranks not to care if other cranks (and denialists in general for that matter) have variations on their own crazy ideas, just as long as the other cranks are opposing the same perceived incorrect truth. Cranks and denialists aren’t honest brokers in a debate, they stand outside of it and just shovel horse manure into it to try to sow confusion and doubt about real science. They don’t care if some other crank or denialist comes along and challenges the prevailing theory by tossing cow manure, as long as what they’re shoveling stinks.

And consistent with the HOWTO their struggle comes with a built-in sense of persecution:

such events were designed to foster the impression of “little Davids battling the Goliath of the environmental establishment.”

It’s too bad the author of the article didn’t know that the standard comparison is to the fight between Galileo and the Catholic Church.

In perusing the various discussions of the conference I have to admit that this time Nisbet does have a point. I disagree with him that the crankfest will really amount to much, but I do agree with him that the real problem here isn’t scientific but personal. Global warming crankery, more than anything, isn’t a generalized dismissal of science but an extreme dislike for the people identified with the science. Consistently through these arguments you see this streak of defiance, that no one should be able to tell anyone else how to live. If they want to spend their free time disposing their used motor oil by pouring it onto a pile of burning tires, that’s their business, and Al Gore can go screw himself.

The main targets at the meeting were former Vice President Al Gore, who has portrayed global warming as a “planetary emergency,” and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change…

That’s a much harder problem to face. I can’t make Al Gore more likable to the psycho libertarian wing of the country, and since he, for better or ill, is intimately attached to the science we might just have to call it a wash. After all, there is no actual knowledge of the science associated with such dismissals. The popular dissent over global warming doesn’t come from people pouring through scientific journals and thorough reading of material that’s challenging even for specialists in the field. It’s about personality.

The meeting was largely framed around science, but after the luncheon, when an organizer made an announcement asking all of the scientists in the large hall to move to the front for a group picture, 19 men did so.

Know what I mean? Global warming isn’t being rejected because the science isn’t sound. It’s critics don’t tend to be scientists, and the ones that are, well, let’s just say they could have fooled me. The issue is the effective framing of the scientists and supporters of global warming as snooty liberals who want to tell you what to do and the media who want to scare you (they do have a point there). What is surprising is that how ineffective environmental groups have been at fighting this impression.

For one, there has not been a consistent attack on bad news reporting on climate. Things like the list of things caused by global warming are illustrative. While the author John Brignell is a crank who brings up the same old canards like how it used to be global cooling etc., there is a point to be made here. Media coverage of climate is poor, and there will always be some crummy news organization who will try to turn the smallest piece of scientific minutia into a scare story. Is this the fault of the scientists? No. Maybe their university press offices could stand a good spanking but it doesn’t tend to be the direct intention of the typical scientist to try to create a scare-a-minute for news ratings. Is this something that contributes to the formation of cranks on this issue? Sure!

People hate being told to be afraid all the time and will lash out at what they perceive to be the source of this kind of crap information. It’s been shown again and again, doom and gloom doesn’t work, it just generates resentment and apathy. And we shouldn’t be surprised that this is the result. After all, we’ve seen fear used to control people politically so much, should we be surprised when people interpret fearmongering stories about global warming to be any different?

We need to communicate a need to correct these problems without allowing the media to turn every new finding into a scare-story which is their natural tendency. To some degree our hands are tied, it is difficult to communicate scientific issues to a large number of people without using the media, and it’s like trying to hold the tiger by the tail – you can’t predict where they’ll go with the information science generates.

The second issue is changing this from being about Al Gore. As absurd as the personal attacks and conspiracy theories about AGW existing only to enrich Al Gore are, it’s still a problem as long as people are receptive to such nonsense. Al Gore did a great job communicating the problems we face environmentally to those receptive to such a message but that is where it ends. If we care about convincing the remainder of Americans, or at least diminishing crankery on this topic, we also have to make the people who despise Al Gore care, and that is where Nisbet’s framing can be helpful.

For one, we must continually point out that being stubborn about using fossil fuels doesn’t make you a rebel but rather OPEC’s bitch. By letting the cranks frame this around Al Gore we’ve missed out on a lot of ways to make this matter to a larger group of people. For one, we could do a better job pointing out that all that money we spend on oil goes to the repressive governments we like least in the world. There’s a good reason Putin’s underlings showed up at this event. Oil money is what props up his regime. Same for Ahmadinejad. Same for the genocidal thugs in Sudan. I think the best frame is “Save the environment, stop sending your money to these assholes”.