The analysis of speech

What constitutes legitimate analysis of speech?

This question has been brought into sharp focus by the most recent position of the journal Frontiers that they put out last Friday. This statement claimed that our paper Recursive Fury (uwa.edu.au/recursivefury), had been retracted because it “did not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects.” This seemingly stands in contrast to the contractually-agreed retraction statement, signed by legal representatives of the journal and the authors, that Frontiers “…did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study.”

It is helpful that the Frontiers affair involved two contrasting ways in which speech was being used by the various participants. Let us therefore analyze those two ways in turn.

The complainant(s).

Although we have destroyed all correspondence and documents involving the allegations against us at the request of Frontiers, and although now, a year later, our recollection of those events is minimal, Graham Readfearn has put something about the allegations into the public domain that has received little attention to date.

Readfearn states that the complaints against us alleged “malice” on the part of the authors in various ways. As far as I understand it, malice is a legal term meaning an improper motive in making a statement; and, if proved in Court, removes some defenses to charges of defamation.

In the present context, it is most relevant that the accusations of malice against John Cook, one of the authors of Recursive Fury, were based on his apparent sanctioning of “vile commentary” against the complainant and other bloggers.

Indeed, the material cited in support contains irate statements that none of the authors of Recursive Fury would countenance.

None of the authors made those statements.

One will fail to find anything like those comments on Cook’s blog, www.skepticalscience.com: None of the more than 88,000 public comments posted there to date contain anything that could be remotely construed as vitriolic or polemical—that’s because 7000 comments were deleted by moderators owing to their inflammatory content.

So where did the “vile commentary” come from and how did John Cook “sanction” it?

The vile commentary was made by third parties unconnected to Recursive Fury on a private forum that was password-protected, and whose purpose was to permit open and completely uncensored discussion among a small group of collaborators. Those comments were posted in the expectation of privacy, and they became public only through a criminal act—a hack attack on Skepticalscience that has been explored in great forensic depth.

John Cook neither wrote those comments, nor could he be reasonably expected to moderate them. They were made in private and became public by an illegal act by parties unknown.

What John did was to host a private forum on which other people vented their anger. If that is malice, then so would be inopportune comments by your friends at an illegally wire-tapped dinner party. You better censor what your guests say in case your next party is bugged, lest you be accused of malice.

The complainant’s conduct follows a common pattern in the Subterranean War on Science: Use of private correspondence obtained by an illegal act to construct allegations against scientists. Except that in this case, to allege malice against John Cook, hackers trolled through two years of his private conversations and found exactly nothing.

Zip. Zilch. Bupkis.

All the hackers and trolls could find were other parties expressing anger in the expectation of privacy. I cannot think of clearer evidence for the absence of malice in John Cook’s conduct.

I nonetheless think there might be evidence of malice here.

Maybe some readers can spot it.

The authors of Recursive Fury.

Recursive Fury was conducted with ethics approval (of course!) and Frontiers entered into a contractual agreement for the retraction that noted that their review “…did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study”.

And what did Recursive Fury do? It presented a narrative analysis of public discourse in the blogosphere in the aggregate. We did not categorize anyone into anything, we categorized statements.

That’s all.

This is the difference between saying “Joe is a racist” and saying “When Joe and Fred get together in a bar at night their discourse contains racist elements based on application of the following scholarly criteria.” Now, we could have withheld the sources of all those statements, thereby anonymizing the analysis and protecting the identity of those who feel that their public statements are too fragile to survive scholarly scrutiny.

However, we considered this unwise in light of the pervasive allegations against (climate) scientists that they are “hiding data.”

Folks, we did not hide the data.

We made them all available. And they are still here: uwa.edu.au/recursivefury.

By the way, there are ample precedents for this kind of work, including other hot-button issues such as anti-Semitism. Yes, there is a scholarly paper out there that analyzes the public speeches of contemporary Austrian politicians for their anti-Semitic undertones. (I am not linking to that study here, lest the researcher be caught up in the turmoil of requests for his/her data, or requests to destroy the data, or requests to provide ethics approval, or his/her entire email correspondence during the last 13 years.)

Here then is the crucial question about the analysis of speech that arises from the Frontiers affair:

Are public statements by people who knowingly made them in public, subject to scholarly analysis? Or is it only stolen correspondence by third parties made in the expectation of privacy that can be used to allege malice on the part of someone who never said anything malicious himself?

In Whose Hands the Future?

Revisiting a Retraction

The journal Frontiers retracted our “Recursive Fury” paper on 21 March. Frontiers withdrew Recursive Fury due to legal fears, not academic or ethical reasons. The paper—probably the most widely-read article ever published by Frontiers—can now be found at uwa.edu.au/recursivefury.

The retraction was accompanied by the following statement:

“In the light of a small number of complaints received following publication of the original research article cited above, Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical and legal aspects of the work. This investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article. The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article and regret the limitations on academic freedom which can be caused by legal factors.”

This statement was the result of negotiations between the lawyer for Frontiers and a legal representative of the authors in the U.K., and it formed part of a formal retraction agreement signed by both parties. Although we disagreed with the journal’s decision, we were provided with sufficient information to understand it. Our position on the decision was shared by officers of the Australian Psychological Society and other organizations, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Although there has been considerable media attention, the authors have made few public comments since the paper was retracted. I have continued to serve as a co-editor of a forthcoming special issue of Frontiers, I accepted a reviewing assignment for that journal, and I currently have another paper in press with Frontiers. After the retraction, I was approached by several Frontiers editors and authors who were dismayed at the journal’s decision. In all instances I pointed out that I continued to serve as author, reviewer, and co-editor for Frontiers.

A few days ago, the journal released another statement about the retraction on their website. This recent statement raised several points that were new to us and that can be interpreted as a departure from the earlier, contractually-agreed retraction statement. Because of the public interest in this issue I draw attention to three issues that are most in need of disambiguation. (I defer other issues that deserve correction to future posts):

First, in its most recent statement, the journal seemed to imply that the paper was retracted because it “did not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects.” This stands in contrast to the contractually-agreed retraction statement, signed by legal representatives of both parties, that Frontiers “…did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study.” It also sits uneasily with public statements by Frontiers’ lawyer, such as “Frontiers is concerned about solid science and it’s obviously a regret when you have to retract an article that is scientifically and ethically sound…

Second, in its recent statement Frontiers also stated that it had received no (presumably legal) threats. This claim sits uneasily with the public statement of at least one individual who explicitly stated that he had threatened the journal. Moreover, another complainant publicly alleged defamation, and asserted that the journal’s apparent concern with “defamation liability” was justified: Details were provided by Graham Readfearn earlier. The journal’s recent claim also sits uneasily with the contractually-agreed retraction statement, which ascribed the retraction to an “insufficiently clear” legal context. I pointed out earlier that this legal context involved English libel laws in force prior to 2014. Those laws were sufficiently notorious for their chilling effect on inconvenient speech for President Obama to sign a law that makes U.K. libel judgments unenforceable in the U.S.

Third, the journal revealed the existence of a new paper that we submitted in January 2014 and that according to their latest statement “did not deal adequately with the issues raised by Frontiers.”

To resolve those discrepancies between retraction-related statements requires a brief summary of events.

During a Skype conversation on 14 June 2013, representatives of Frontiers informed me that they had decided that there were no academic or ethical grounds for a retraction of Recursive Fury, but that changes might have to be made to the paper to safeguard against the legal risk of defamation. I agreed that I would “… work towards a constructive solution with you [Frontiers] to get the paper re-posted when it is ready,” even though no such risk of defamation had been identified by the relevant officers of my host institution at the time, the University of Western Australia.

On 28 August 2013 I was informed by Frontiers that their analysis of the defamation risk—under English libel laws—had found the risk to be too great for the journal to carry the article, and that it would have to be retracted. This decision was accompanied by an invitation to submit a replacement article that dealt with the issues identified in the various reviews and assessments.

We submitted a replacement article on 1/1/14, by which time English libel laws had changed significantly. It is worth considering this replacement article in some detail because it went beyond the initial Recursive Fury in the following ways:

  • Our narrative analysis was independently verified and further refined by a philosopher and a historian of science.
  • We conducted two behavioral studies with naïve and blind subjects who were not aware of the background or purpose of the study, and who responded to anonymized web content. Those studies (a) confirmed the classification of hypotheses reported in Recursive Fury and (b) showed that naïve observers rated the web content extremely high (i.e., modal response was the top end of the scale) on dimensions related to conspiracist thinking but not on an attribute relating to the quality of scholarly critique.
  • Our narrative analysis was anonymized (by paraphrasing verbatim public statements until they no longer yielded hits in Google) to prevent identification of individuals while retaining the integrity of the study.

Frontiers rejected this replacement paper on 12 February, claiming that it failed to deal adequately with the defamation issue. Our (English) legal advice clarifies that defamation cannot arise if individuals  cannot be identified in the minds of a “reasonable reader.” It must also be noted that the laws in England changed significantly on 1/1/14 to now include explicit provision for the protection of peer-reviewed science.

To sum up:

Throughout the entire period, from March 2013 until February 2014, the only concern voiced by Frontiers related to the presumed defamation risk under English libel laws. While the University of Western Australia offered to host the retracted paper at uwa.edu.au/recursivefury because it did not share those legal concerns, Frontiers rejected an anonymized replacement paper on the basis that non-identifiable parties might feel defamed.

No other cause was ever offered or discussed by Frontiers to justify the retraction of Recursive Fury. We are not aware of a single mention of the claim that our study “did not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects” by Frontiers throughout the past year, although we are aware of their repeated explicit statements, in private and public, that the study was ethically sound.

This brings into focus several possibilities for the reconciliation of Frontier’s contradictory statements concerning the retraction:

First, one could generously propose that the phrase “did not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects” is simply a synonym for “defamation risk” and that the updated statement therefore supports the contractually-agreed statement. This is possible but it puts a considerable strain on the meaning of “synonym.”

Second, one could take the most recent statement by Frontiers at face value. This has two uncomfortable implications: It would imply that the true reason for the retraction was withheld from the authors for a year. It would also imply that the journal entered into a contractual agreement about the retraction statement that misrepresented its actual position.

Third, perhaps the journal only thought of this new angle now and in its haste did not consider that it violates their contractually-agreed position.

Or there are other possibilities that we have not been able to identify.

Recursive Fury: A Summary of Media Coverage

The journal Frontiers retracted our “Recursive Fury” paper some time ago not for academic or ethical reasons but owing to legal fears. The paper can now be found at uwa.edu.au/recursivefury because the University of Western Australia has come to a different risk assessment and sees no reason not to host the paper.

There has been quite a flurry of media activity since the retraction, and a complete listing can be found over at Skepticalscience. This post highlights some of the mainstream coverage and provides some of the more notable quotes:

Contrarians bully journal into retracting a climate psychology paper

Blog Post published by The Guardian on 22 March 2014

Dana Nuccitelli:

It’s unfortunate that the Frontiers editors were unwilling to stand behind a study that they admitted was sound from an academic and ethical standpoint, especially since UWA concluded the paper would withstand a legal assault. This series of events should be a wake-up call to editors and publishers that they must remain resilient to organized campaigns by the blogosphere. Academics can no longer be confident that the Frontiers staff will stand behind them if they publish research in the journal and are subjected to similar frivolous attacks. Frontiers may very well be worse off having lost the confidence of the academic community than if they had called the bluffs of the contrarians threatening frivolous lawsuits.

Fortunately, several journals and organizations have stood up against this type of contrarian bullying. The journal Environmental Research Letters easily withstood the campaign against our consensus paper, and the Australian Psychological Society has been very supportive of Lewandowsky and his team, as has the Association for Psychological Science. 

These groups offer a good example for journals to follow when subjected to organized bullying from contrarians trying to censor sound but inconvenient research.

Recursive furies, hurt feelings or confected outrage

Blog Post published by HotWhopper on 22 March 2014

Frontiers in Psychology is an open access journal that says:

Our grand vision is to build an Open Science platform that empowers researchers in their daily work and where everybody has equal opportunity to seek, share and generate knowledge.

By all accounts the journal could be viewed as taking a step backwards from that “grand vision” by caving into people who object to research.

The University of Western Australia is standing by the paper.  It’s probably a lot bigger than the Frontiers in Psychology journal and almost certainly has more expertise in law. 

 

Journal pulls paper due to “legal context” created by climate contrarians

Magazine published by Ars Technica on 22 March 2014

The article cites Michael Kenyon, the Frontiers lawyer, as follows:

Frontiers is concerned about solid science and it’s obviously a regret when you have to retract an article that is scientifically and ethically sound.
 

Academic journal bows to pressure from climate deniers

Magazine published by Salon on 22 March 2014, citing Kim Heitman, the UWA’s General Counsel:

‘I’m entirely comfortable with you publishing the paper on the UWA web site. You and the University can easily be sued for any sorts of hurt feelings or confected outrage, and I’d be quite comfortable processing such a phony legal action as an insurance matter.’

— Kimberley Heitman, B.Juris, LLB, MACS, CT, General Counsel, University of Western Australia

Thanks to Heitman, the study can still be found at the University of Western Australia’s website; a second study conducted by Lewandosky, which replicated the results of the first in a representative U.S. sample, remains where it was posted at PLoS ONE.

A Conspiracy Theory Researcher Falls Victim to Conspiracy Theories: Intimidated Journal to Retract Lewandowsky Paper

Blog Post published by the Union of Concerned Scientists on 21 March 2014

Such a retraction would reflect badly on the journal and may set a terrible precedent. Papers should be withdrawn based on significant concerns with the quality of the research, not based on threats.

This is yet another example of why researchers, journals, and universities need to be sufficiently prepared to effectively respond to outside scrutiny of their work. Sometimes that scrutiny is warranted and adds to public understanding, but in other cases, such as this one, it can be distracting and frivolous.
 

This is not the only scientific organization to be dismayed at the retraction; officers of the Australian Psychological Society have likewise expressed their distress at the retraction of Recursive Fury, as I discuss in this video.


The paper they don’t want you to read!

Blog Post published by Pharyngula on 21 March 2014

PZ Myers

Steve McIntyre wrote a “strongly worded” “formal letter” demanding that the “defamatory” article be removed, and accusing the authors of malice. Further, they complained that analyzing the content of blog posts and comments, public, openly accessible work, was an ethics violation.

Ludicrous as those claims are, Frontiers in Psychology is apparently about to fold to them. For shame.

You know, my university had a meeting with our institutional lawyers yesterday — I was called in to attend the information session for some reason, like having a reputation as a trouble-maker or something — and I was impressed with their professionalism and their commitment to actually defending the faculty and staff of the university. I guess not every organization is lucky enough to have good lawyers of principle.
 

Science Journal Set To Retract Paper Linking Climate Change Scepticism To Conspiracy Theorists After Sceptics Shout Libel

Blog Post published by Desmogblog on 20 March 2014

Graham Readfearn

In McIntyre’s complaint letters (seen as item numbers 95 and 99 on the FOI document release), the Canadian blogger uses quotes hacked from a private forum of the Skeptical Science, founded University of Queensland academic John Cook and co-author on the Recursive study.

McIntyre cites the quotes in an attempt to demonstrate “malice” against him, even though none of those quotes were written by any of the authors of the paper.

Liability fears drive psychology journal to retract climate study

Blog Post published by Scholars and Rogues on 24 March 2014

… the fact that an informal group of critics was able to force the retraction of an ethically and academically sound study will embolden others to turn this into a legal tactic against research they disagree with. …

And in the process, those critics are demonstrating yet again that the conclusions of all three studies are correct: there is correlation between being a conspiracy theorist and believing that climate disruption is a hoax or scam.

‘Conspiracist’ climate change study withdrawn amid legal threats

Sydney Morning Herald 2 April 2014 (this also ran in the Canberra Times and the Brisbane Times)

Peter Hannam

Kim Heitman, a lawyer for the UWA, said the university had done its own risk analysis before publishing the paper online. “There’s no reason to take it down,” Mr Heitman said.

The university, though, had also received plaudits from around the world for its decision to publish the paper. “I couldn’t list them,” Mr Heitman said. “And I wouldn’t list them, having regard to the fact that anyone who issues a ‘thanks UWA’ will probably get their own enquiry.”

The journal that gave in to climate deniers’ intimidation

The Conversation 2 April 2014

Elaine McKewon

This piece was written by one of the reviewers of the original paper and it tells her side of the story. She concludes:

In any event, the journal’s management and editors were clearly intimidated by climate deniers who threatened to sue. So Frontiers bowed to their demands, retracted the paper, damaged its own reputation, and ultimately gave a free kick to aggressive climate deniers.

 I would have expected a scientific journal to have more backbone, certainly when it comes to the crucially important issue of academic freedom.

 

By and large, the mainstream media coverage seems to have picked up on what’s really at issue here, namely academic freedom and editorial intimidation by a small band of vociferous individuals.

The Recursive Fury retraction is just one visible instance of such intimidation. Subterranean campaigns against inconvenient scientific articles by climate deniers have become increasingly frequent and they deserve to be exposed in order to safeguard the public’s right to be informed about the risks it is facing from climate change.

In whose hands the future?

More Bandwidth for ‘Recursive Fury’

One of my most widely read papers, “Recursive Fury“, was recently retracted by the journal Frontiers even though they found no academic or ethical problems with the paper. The reasons underlying this decision are outlined here and here.

Because of the paper’s popularity, I made it available after its retraction on a server hosted by the University of Western Australia, accessible under the short link sks.to/recursivefury. The demand on the paper appears to have been so large that this relatively small server could not always cope with the traffic. At one point, it took me more than 2 minutes to download the pdf.

I apologize for the inconvenience.

Predictably, the technical difficulties with accessing the paper have given rise to some wild speculations about its existence or well being. No need to apologize for that: more confirmation of the well-established fact that denial of science often involves a measure of conspiratorial discourse never goes astray.

To resolve those bandwidth-related technical difficulties, the paper has now been moved to a more focal server within the University of Western Australia, and the UWA web manager has kindly created a special link to the paper that identifies its host more clearly: uwa.edu.au/recursivefury.

I hope that this resolves any technical difficulties.

Recursive Fury goes recurrent

Some 18 months ago I published a paper with colleagues Oberauer and Gignac that reported a survey of visitors to climate blogs which established a small, but significant, association between the endorsement of conspiracy theories and the rejection of several scientific propositions, including the fact that the earth is warming from greenhouse gases. The effects reported in that paper have since been replicated with a representative sample of Americans. No scholarly critique of either paper has been submitted for peer review to any journal to date.

Publication of the first paper (now known as LOG12) engendered a sustained and ongoing attack on the research and my work in general. Most of these attacks have been pursued by defamation on the internet, but they have also involved activities beneath the surface hidden from public view. I have already written about this Subterranean War on Science.

The strategies employed in those attacks follow a common playbook, regardless of which scientific proposition is being denied and regardless of who the targeted scientists are: There is cyber-bullying and public abuse by “trolling” (which recent research has linked to sadism); there is harassment by vexatious freedom-of-information (FOI) requests; there are the complaints to academic institutions; legal threats; and perhaps most troubling, there is the intimidation of journal editors and publishers who are acting on manuscripts that are considered inconvenient.

Together with colleagues Cook, Oberauer, and Marriott, I also published another paper last year, entitled Recursive Fury, in the online Journal Frontiers. This article reported a narrative analysis of the blogosphere’s response to publication of LOG12. The blogosphere’s response bore a striking resemblance to the very topic of LOG12: our finding that rejection of climate science is associated with conspiratorial thinking triggered elements of conspiratorial discourse among those who sought to deny that denial of climate science involves a measure of conspiratorial thinking:

Recursive Fury attracted some media attention (e.g., in the New York Times) as well as critique. It should come as little surprise that this critique did not involve a scholarly response, such as submission of a rejoinder for peer review, but that it entailed a barrage of complaints to the University of Western Australia (UWA), where I was based at the time, and the journal Frontiers.

While not retracting the paper, Frontiers removed the article from its website in March 2013. The journal then commenced an arduous process of investigation which has now come to a conclusion.

Frontiers will post (or has posted) the following statement on its website today:

“In the light of a small number of complaints received following publication of the original research article cited above, Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical and legal aspects of the work. This investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article. The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article and regret the limitations on academic freedom which can be caused by legal factors.”

In other words, the article is fine but Frontiers does not want to take the legal risk that its restoration on the website might entail.

This is not the first time that legal fears have led to the withdrawal of a paper.

The authors were involved in drafting the retraction statement and sanction its content: We understand the journal’s position even though we do not agree with it.

Until January 1st of this year, the U.K.—where I now reside and whose laws are therefore applicable—was the country made in heaven for people who wanted to use “defamation” as a tool to suppress inconvenient speech, to the point that President Obama recently signed a law to make U.K. libel judgments unenforceable in the U.S. That law (PUBLIC-LAW 111-223) explicitly cites the “ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work” as motivating reason for making foreign libel judgments unenforceable in the United States.

Richard Dawkins rightly noted some time ago that scientists in the U.K. were operating in “an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty” under the libel laws. The law has now been reformed and, since January 1st, it contains some protections for scientists, a point to which I may return in future posts.

As far as we can tell, Recursive Fury attracted more attention than any other paper in psychology ever published by Frontiers. It attracted 9,124 full text views, and the count of abstract views was 29,324 when we last checked (at which time the article that we identifies as runner-up had 12,086 abstract views and 1,091 full text views).

Given its popularity, and given that approximately 29,300 viewers did not complain about our work, it would be a shame to deprive the public of access to this article. Because the work was conducted in Australia, I consulted with the University of Western Australia’s chief lawyer, Kim Heitman, who replied as follows:

“I’m entirely comfortable with you publishing the paper on the UWA web site. You and the University can easily be sued for any sorts of hurt feelings or confected outrage, and I’d be quite comfortable processing such a phony legal action as an insurance matter.”

— Kimberley Heitman, B.Juris, LLB, MACS, CT, General Counsel, University of Western Australia

So here, then, is Recursive Fury.

The value of ‘development’ for tribal peoples

Around the world ‘development’ is robbing tribal people of their land, self-sufficiency and pride.

This short, satirical film, written by Oren Ginzburg and narrated by British actor and comedian David Mitchell, questions the value of ‘development’ for tribal peoples. 

We are grateful to http://www.survivalinternational.org to make it available for us here:

 

You can read more here:

http://www.survivalinternational.org/thereyougo 

In the words of Roy Sesana, a Bushman from Botswana, ‘What kind of development is it when people lead shorter lives than before?’

Disinformation, water scarcity, and conflict: Opinions have ethical implications

This article by Suzanne Goldenberg in The Guardian caught my attention because it points to another potential source of violent conflict from climate change, namely the depletion of water in some parts of the world. To quote from her article:

Already a billion people, or one in seven people on the planet, lack access to safe drinking water. Britain, of course, is currently at the other extreme. Great swaths of the country are drowning in misery, after a series of Atlantic storms off the south-western coast. But that too is part of the picture that has been coming into sharper focus over 12 years of the Grace satellite record. Countries at northern latitudes and in the tropics are getting wetter. But those countries at mid-latitude are running increasingly low on water.

The folks who specialize in conflict management, the Pentagon, recognizes the water problem as a potential source of conflict:

The US security establishment is already warning of potential conflicts – including terror attacks – over water. In a 2012 report, the US director of national intelligence warned that overuse of water – as in India and other countries – was a source of conflict that could potentially compromise US national security.

So it is not just heat stress that may trigger violent conflict, perhaps via forced migration as a mediating variable, but also water scarcity. Lest one think that this is an issue for the distant future, several scientists have recently pointed to a link between drought and the war in Syria; for example, here and here. Even the Washington Post reported on the link some months ago. (None of this is to ignore the politics of the conflict, but societal stressors should not be overlooked.)

Also today, the UK Met Office released a climate statement that states the obvious:

There is an increasing body of evidence that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense, and that the rate of increase is consistent with what is expected from fundamental physics. There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly heavy rain events.

Floods or droughts, depending on where you live, all consequences of ongoing climate change. Consequences that were predicted decades ago by climate scientists. Consequences that continue to be denied by a propaganda machine that scholarly research has revealed to be funded by up to a billion dollars a year.

Opinions have ethical consequences. The dissemination of scientifically unfounded opinions to delay political solutions to a problem that was once fairly readily solvable, and is now solvable only at increasingly greater cost, has ethical implications. It also establishes a potential causal link between misinformation and each of the increasing number of climate-related extreme events–perhaps the floods in Somerset, just a few short miles from here, should be framed as being provided by the infamous Heartland Institute.

Disinformation, migration, conflict: Opinions have ethical implications

[8.2.14: Update below] This new type of post, identified by the icon at the right, is intended to draw attention to interesting articles in the scientific literature. I came across an article by Valerie Mueller and colleagues in Nature Climate Change that examined the effects of weather extremes on migration within Pakistan. This research attracted my attention because it meshes nicely with our recent work on climate change and the risk of conflict. Although our work focuses in particular on how misinformation contributes to exacerbating those risks, any evidence for the linkage between extreme weather events and potential conflict triggers is of interest to us.

In a nutshell, Mueller and colleagues conducted a longitudinal (>20 years) survey in rural Pakistan. The information from this survey was then linked to satellite measures of climate variability which permitted an examination of the link between potential climatic triggers and (internal) migration. Mueller and colleagues found that heat stress considerably increased the likelihood of long-term migration (at least of men), driven by a negative effect on farm and non-farm income.

If you are interested in more details, Andy Extance has written a very informative and detailed blog about this paper here.

The work by Mueller and colleagues adds another piece of evidence to the suggestion that climate change may ultimately trigger violent conflicts. Although the authors did not postulate that linkage, and although their work studied internal migration within Pakistan, it seems self-evident that in other contexts displaced persons may turn into refugees when heat stress forces them to cross international borders. That is, if heat stress generally triggers migration, then it will sooner or later also trigger a stream of refugees. Estimates of the number of such future refugees run as high as 187 million.

It would be optimistic indeed to assume that such a large number of refugees could migrate around the world without violent conflict. Indeed, some research has already suggested that countries that host a particularly large number of refugees are more prone to domestic and international terrorism.

In other words, unmitigated climate change may well lead to violent conflict and human misery. To the extent that disinformation about climate, curently spread to the tune of $1,000,000,000 a year, delays mitigation efforts, it is a contributing factor to future violence and misery.

This link reinforces the philosophical thesis that opinions have ethical consequences. It is not ethically neutral to dismiss the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. Spreading climate disinformation entails a responsibility for the “downstream” consequences. At present, this is a philosophical argument, but the possibility of it eventually acquiring legal force should not be precluded. Interesting legal arguments along those lines have been made with respect to the tobacco industry’s activities.

Lest one wonder whether misinformation can really have violent consequences, remember the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq? Remember the Iraqi defector who revealed “work on at least 20 hidden weapons sites”? The “undisputed fact” that September 11 attacker Mohamed Atta met with Iraqi intelligence officers in Prague? None of those claims were true, despite being reported in some of the most prestigious American mainstream media outlets. 

Ironically, the same newspapers and the same journalists who beat the war drums a decade ago are now also frequently misrepresenting the risk the world is facing from climate change.

[8.2.14. Update: I verified with the first author of this article, Dr Valerie Mueller, that the research also swept up out-of-village migrants that emigrated to other countries (mainly in the Middle East, e.g., UAE). However, the overwhelming majority of migrants, around 90%, were domestic and resettled within Pakistan (those numbers are not in the published version of the article). The article thus primarily studied internal migration, rather than exclusively, as I first understood it to be the case.]

Antarctic Confusions

Australia is home to The Australian, a flagship product of Rupert Murdoch’s stable of media organs. Although The Australian is technically a broadsheet, it sadly has a track record of distortion and misrepresentation when it comes to climate reporting.

The recent adventures of the Australian expedition to Antarctica appear to have provided further impetus for The Australian to get things wrong in its coverage. Under the headline Stuck on a ship of (cold) fools, the paper opined:

YOU have to feel a touch of sympathy for the global warming scientists, journalists and other hangers-on aboard the Russian ship stuck in impenetrable ice in Antarctica, the mission they so confidently embarked on to establish solid evidence of melting ice caps resulting from climate change embarrassingly abandoned because the ice is, in fact, so impossibly thick.

The aim of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, led by Chris Turney of the University of NSW, was to prove the East Antarctic ice sheet is melting. Its website spoke alarmingly of “an increasing body of evidence” showing “melting and collapse from ocean warming”. Instead, rescue ships and a helicopter, all belching substantial carbon emissions, have had to be mobilised to pluck those aboard the icebreaker MV Akademik Schokalskiy from their plight, stuck in what appears to be, ironically, record amounts of ice for this time of year.

Right.

An ice breaker gets stuck in ice and that somehow is an embarassment to “global warming scientists.”

Not exactly.

Because if one goes to the expedition’s web page, then their first three scientific goals (there are 9 altogether) are stated as follows:

  1. gain new insights into the circulation of the Southern Ocean and its impact on the global carbon cycle
  2. explore changes in ocean circulation caused by the growth of extensive fast ice and its impact on life in Commonwealth Bay
  3. use the subantarctic islands as thermometers of climatic change by using trees, peats and lakes to explore the past

I have highlighted the important bit: the growth of extensive fast ice. What is “extensive fast ice”? It is sea ice, and it is precisely the ice in which the expedition is now stuck, as its director blogged recently. 

In other words, the expedition is experiencing precisely the conditions it set out to study—namely the sea ice that scientists know is increasing around Antarctica, while the icecaps on Antarctica are known to melt. 

There is a solid body of evidence that Antarctica is melting (a consequence of global warming) whereas sea ice around Antarctica is increasing. The reasons underlying those seemingly opposing trends make for some fascinating science.

But being fascinated by science, and getting it right, is not anything we can expect from The Australian, alas.

Iraq, Climate, and the Media

The “97%” blog at The Guardian was generous enough to run a piece by me on the similarities and dissimilarities between the media coverage in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the current reporting of climate change. There is no point in reiterating the piece here, but it may be worthwhile to point to the underlying scholarly article that appeared in American Psychologist as part of a special issue on peace and conflict resolution. Sadly, the journal article is behind a paywall, but I believe that I am entitled to email it to interested parties upon request.