I had a long enough response to Ken’s Honesty and Hypocrisy that I decided to post it as an article instead of a comment. The following all sounds far more confident and oracular than I feel – please apply “maybe”s and “sorta”s liberally as you read. But it’s the response that comes to mind.
Q: “Do people think I should just be a punching bag because it’s the price you pay for wanting to try and convince people of something like climate change… ?”
A: Yes, I’m afraid so.
1 The expression “tone troll” exists for a reason
2 There are unreasonable people everywhere. As an issue gains prominence, they are attracted to the conversation. Therefore the greater the effect you are having, the more frequently you can be expected to be treated in an unreasonable way
3 There is no shortage of BS. For various reasons much discussed on this site and elsewhere, the playing field is tilted in favor of nonsense in climate-related topics. A key one is that people who actually understand the physical outlines of the problem well are few on the ground, and those willing to engage with the legitimate skeptics still fewer. To make a hockey analogy, professional NHL teams have an “enforcer” role sometimes – a player who is quick to fight and effective in a fight, who doesn’t necessarily skate or shoot or steal the puck very well. The purpose of the role is to intimidate the other team. Encouraging disengagement from people who understand the picture is one of the motivators for the rudeness. But you can’t win this battle by being rude back – there is nobody on the naysayer team who is interested in science and abhors politics to discourage. Hardly anybody at all.
4 The law of shallow metrics applies. When people do not have time or skill or attention to use deep metrics, they default to shallow ones. One buys the laundry detergent one’s mother used, because one has many decisions to make and is not inclined to research detergent alternatives. People base their opinions of climate on shallow metrics, just as climate experts base their opinions on other matters on shallow metrics. For example, I *think* GMOs are safe for consumption but are causing environmental damage in large-scale deployment. But that “thinking” is not the sort of informed thinking I apply to areas of my real expertise; it’s based on the tone and attitudes that most resemble those of people I find reliable in my own experience.
5 That is, democratic decisions are based not on reason but on networks of trust. The key atrocity in Lamar Smith’s attack on Thomas Karl is that the network of trust between the supposedly responsible Republican Party and the supposedly responsible NCDC has broken down to a point where implications of sinister conspiracy appear in Congress and the Wall Street Journal. The problem is not that Smith is crazy (though he may be) nor that Karl is evil (I rather doubt that he is in the Darth Vader league where he is placed by so many). The problem is that Smith’s social metrics have failed so spectacularly as to see or to be able to paint Karl as a politically motivated creature because he does some (rather accessible, straightforward) science.
6 My sixth grade teacher Mrs. Adair once said “It’s not enough to *be* good. You also have to *look* good.” It’s the only thing I remember about Mrs. Adair. I resented her for saying this. It was one of the first times I resisted what an adult told me, which may be why I remember it. But she’s right enough in a political context, because people rarely judge you ad argumentam and usually ad hominem. There are too many things to think about. We simply can’t think about all of them very well. Shortcuts are evil, but they are a necessary evil.
7 “Do people think I should just be a punching bag because it’s the price you pay for wanting to try and convince people of something like climate change… ?” Yes, I’m afraid so. Sort of. As you become more effective you will not be able to keep up with all the outrages. Imagine what Mike Mann is facing. I find that in the cases which you find hardest to ignore, the most effective thing to do is say “I’m too angry/upset/offended to respond effectively.” Sometimes you can ask someone else to stand up for you.
8 It’s a snarky world. Arch mockery is the best strategy for dealing with unfair attacks if you can pull it off well. Again this cannot really scale.
9 But if you become effective in communicating a message people do not want to hear, there is no alternative but to ignore most of the crap that the most ill-raised children fling at you like frustrated chimps. For those of us who want the world to grow up, the very worst possible thing is to fling the crap back.
10 W: “There’s an asymmetry between the two roles for sure. In all the sports where you are only allowed to tackle the ball carrier there is such an asymmetry: when you have the ball, you can’t tackle.” Indeed. What’s more, in this peculiar game, for most spectators the ball is invisible. If you try to tackle you are telling them you haven’t the ball.
11 So what should we do? The issue comes down to scale. While the things we are trying to explain are not that complicated, the initial condition is that most people are inexpert and confused. As the inexpert and confused become engaged, vast amounts of nonsense flow. A serious person trying to make sense of it has considerable difficulty separating the wheat from the chaff.
12 In a functioning society, IPCC and the press would be key to resolving this, but that strategy has apparently not achieved sufficient success.
13 In my opinion, if there’s a foreseeable solution in a (small d) democratic context, it involves the internet. Obviously blogs aren’t sufficient. Indeed the blog medium has surely done far more damage than repair in the climate world. But that’s no reason not to try to use it to help matters. Blogging by the sane and informed can be helpful.
14 Though prominent public lies need quick responses, I think it works best if we preferentially engage with those we find most interesting, rather than those we find most enervating. We should relish real challenges and minimize attention to crap flinging. The people flinging the crap really are trying to distract you from addressing the real challenges. In the end, ClimateBall is the problem, not the solution.