They’re coming for climate scientists!

Doug McNeall had a bit of a tweet-storm yesterday about some personal thoughts on communicating climate science, which he titled So, they’re coming for climate scientists (hence, my title). It caused some discussion on Twitter, and on another blog, to which I won’t bother linking. I think Doug makes some very good points and if I’d read this a few years ago, I would probably have agreed completely. The only reason I don’t quite now is not because I really have any better ideas, but because I don’t really know what is best.

My one issue with what Doug presents is his use of skeptic to refer to those who are mostly dismissive of mainstream science. I can’t necessarily think of a better term, that people wouldn’t also complain about, but skeptic – in my view – gives too much credit to those who are, at best, dubious. I agree completely, however, that we should understand the tactics and should stay ahead of the “skeptic” messaging. We should be aiming to communicate in a manner that is very difficult to misinterpret, or misrepresent, and should be aware of typical “skeptic” tactics; such as no warming since …, as is already starting.

The only thing that I can really think of adding is that science communication is difficult and what would probably help is if there was more of a tendency to be supportive. I think many have the same general goal; improving the general public’s understanding of science and the scientific process. However, I don’t think that we know what works best and we should probably realise that there are many ways in which we can communicate science. It might be possible to objectively criticise the content of what someone presents (i.e., they’re getting the science wrong) but criticising their style is almost always subjective, and this should – in my opinion – be recognised. If anything, there are probably many complementary styles, and it would to good to openly acknowledge this.

My one frustration is probably with those who seem to see their place as critiquing science communication. There can be a tendency to be rather dismissive of what is being done. However, in my view, this is often because those doing so don’t recognise what scientists regard as the goal of science communication; it is more to do with understanding, than accepting. Many scientists recognise that there are some who are pre-disposed to reject certain scientific views. It is, however, not the role of scientists to convince such people, nor is it their role to decide that they should be convinced. Their role is simply to provide information; what people do with that information is up to them. Criticising people for not achieving what was never really their goal, is – in my view – rather counter-productive.

That’s really all I have to say. One reason I posted this was to see what others might think. We’re potentially heading for interesting times, and I would certainly be in favour of finding better ways to communicate science. I don’t really have any particular goals for this blog; it’s mainly a site where I can simply write whatever I happen to feel like writing at that time. I also don’t have any great desire to take it more seriously, or any desire for it be taken any more seriously. However, I am more than happy to listen to suggestions as to how better to communicate science, especially given how contentious this particular topic can be. If anyone has any, feel free to make them in comments, or – if you would prefer – privately.


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40 Responses to They’re coming for climate scientists!

  1. Hal Morris says:

    I totally agree about “skeptic”, and would go further and say it is an insult to scientists, whose fundamental M.O. is skepticism.

  2. Hal,
    Well, yes, that’s the issue with the term being used in this way. Skepticism is a fundamental part of the scientific process; it’s not really meant to refer to the simple dismissal of incovenient scientific views.

  3. Marco says:

    Sou likes to use “dismissives” for some. I myself frequently use pseudoskeptics, although I also like the “septics” that the Stoat has been promoting at times. Do note that not all dislike to be called deniers.

    I don’t think it matters much which term is used, they will be insulted regardless. “Skeptic” they like, exactly because it appropriates that what scientists actually are. It’s a way of signaling “we are what you are supposed to be”, while failing to see they are not.

  4. Marco,

    I don’t think it matters much which term is used, they will be insulted regardless.

    Agreed; it’s mostly about finding reasons to dismiss what’s being presented (they’re using Ad Homs – ignore!) than finding reasons to give it some thought.

  5. guthrie says:

    I’m afraid I didn’t find his twitterstorm very helpful, and have been wondering why. His comments merely provoked a “we know that already” response in me. Moreover, the scientific argument is won, and as you can see by the various activities over the last 20 years from politicians, so has much of the political and indeed social argument; but obviously not enough. We’re never going to get 100% agreement from the populace in general. And so much of the noise in the mail etc is disconnected from any actual base support, rather it is fed by astroturf and liars.

  6. Moreover, the scientific argument is won

    Yes, but I don’t think this is obvious to the public. My own view is that more and more scientists speaking publicly will make this more and more obvious.

  7. Hal Morris says:

    The ones who aren’t dopes will pretend to be insulted, like the basketball player who gets a little bump and falls down dramatically to cause a foul to the other side.

  8. It’s maybe time to adopt some of the style of the denial propagandists and their parrots. E.g.
    1.) Use the word “bullshit” where it is due.
    2.) Since the word “skeptic” alone is indeed insulting science, why not saying “skeptic fossil fools”?

  9. Hal,
    Maybe we need some kind of “yellow card for diving” equivalent.

  10. John Hartz says:

    ATTP: When I read the headline of your OP, I immediately and, as it turns out, erroneously concluded you were opining about what’s described in this article…

    Trump transition team for Energy Department seeks names of employees involved in climate meetings by Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin, Energy & Environment, Washington Post, Dec 9, 2016

    Perhaps you will address this ball of wax in a subsequent post.

  11. BBD says:

    It is, however, not the role of scientists to convince such people, nor is it their role to decide that they should be convinced. Their role is simply to provide information; what people do with that information is up to them. Criticising people for not achieving what was never really their goal, is – in my view – rather counter-productive.

    Yes. The dishonest elision of science with public policy is one of the more pernicious contrarian rhetorics used to attack scientists for telling the truth.

  12. Andrew Freedman (formerly of ClimateCentral) at Mashable went a bit further, and I think the bolded warning here should be broadcast to scientists everywhere. As WMC says, it might not happen, but I’m not betting on it.

    A coming administration hostile to climate science

    The transition team’s questionnaire, which reads more like a subpoena, also mentions the possibility of a 10 percent budget cut to the department starting in fiscal year 2018, and expresses skepticism about the Energy Information Administration’s calculations about how much renewable energy is likely to be used in the coming years.

    “The people who are running the transition at some of the science agencies are some of the people who have been most hostile to the missions of those agencies,” Halpern [Union of Concerned Scientists] said of the Trump administration transition effort.”

    He noted that the questionnaire is so intrusive that not all of the information requested is public, which means the department won’t be able to fully answer all of the questions.

    Curiously, in the section dealing with the Energy Department’s national laboratories, one question asks for a list of all websites “maintained by or contributed to by laboratory staff during work hours for the past three years.”

    It’s unclear what that question is for, but it raises the possibility that websites dedicated to climate change, including data sets from Oak Ridge and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, could be taken offline. This would stifle climate research at nongovernmental entities in the U.S. and abroad.

    ”Scientific information provided by the government is critical to the work of university researchers, state governments, and countless others,” Halpern said.

    ”During the Bush Administration, government scientific websites were altered or disappeared completely,” he said.

    He issued this warning based in part upon the questionnaire: “Anyone who relies on publicly available federal government research and information should take steps to ensure that they download what they need before the new administration steps in.“

    By the way, it doesn’t matter that the scientific argument has been established for reasonable people. They have no access to our government majority any more. Instead, we have the twisted distortions I listed above (h/t Russell who dug up that Heritage program).

  13. Pingback: Trump’s EPA pick will make Obama regret his environmental overreach? – Stoat

  14. I remain Pollyanna-ish at

    As to the tweet sequence: I nearly picked out “Climate skeptics make people feel smart, informed and discoverers of truth. We need to do that more” because it is so intertwined with point 1 of, viz “You, the public, cannot meaningfully evaluate complex science”. The point is that the denialists lie to people and feed their ego by telling them that yes, of course, they can themselves be discoverers of the truth. Which is bollox. It leaves the poor old scientists in the position of saying “sorry, science is hard work” and then poor old Joe Public’s bruised ego has him running back the denialists for balm. Well, tough. Scientists aren’t there to lie to people.

  15. Well, tough. Scientists aren’t there to lie to people.

    Exactly, scientists’ role is not to tell people what they want to hear; it’s to tell people what the evidence indicates. It’s also not a level playing field. As you say, one group is not constrained to tell the truth, while scientists are (or, at least, are constrained to present what is consistent with the scientific evidence). Suggesting that scientists just counter this by simply finding some other way to communicate is – I think – ridiculous.

  16. WMC is Pollyanna-ish because he read this from Pat Michaels:

    President Obama… issued a “preliminary finding of endangerment” from carbon dioxide and other greenhouse emissions. Under their interpretation of the Supreme Court’s landmark 2007 climate change ruling… not only permitted the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1992, it compelled the agency to do so…

    As long as the Endangerment Finding stands, any EPA, including one headed by Pruitt, will be in court defending against any subsidiary attempt to halt or reverse any regulation of carbon dioxide…. So the Endangerment Finding must be reversed.

    But how to do it? ….

    Michaels then goes on to say how the right doesn’t have the scientists ready to do the job properly. Well, Pat Michaels isn’t the brightest bulb on the tree and WMC should know better than to credit him as a reliable source. The Endangerment finding can be reversed by congress and the President. A simple Resolution of Disapproval passed by both houses and signed by the President will do it. Last I checked the GOP will control both houses of congress and the Presidency. So, any optimism based on the Endangerment Finding may well be misplaced.

  17. Tim Roberts says:

    I consider myself to be a scientist – or that at least I think scientifically – and to be a skeptic, so personally I don’t like “skeptic” to be used for what frankly, is denial of science. As for the communication of science, the problem lies fairly and squarely with the ownership of the popular press – overwhelmingly conservative and might I suggest often non-scientific in thought. I refer particularly to what in Australia is known as the “Murdocracy”, a thoroughly right wing corporation that controls the majority of the popular Australian press, and from which we usually hear non-science and denial of climate change and how we are influencing it.

  18. RichardB learned fast:

  19. I agree that the word “skeptic” is generally not accurate, but I use it anyway because to use a term that your interlocutor will find insulting just gives “reasons to dismiss what’s being presented”, whereas I think it is better to stick to the science and leave it to them to show the audience it is they that don’t want to discuss the substance of the argument (because they know at some level they will “lose”). Of course being only human, I don’t always stick to that. I don’t think there is one true means of communicating science, just underlying principles e.g. complete honesty.

  20. RickA says:

    I either have a comment stuck in moderation or the censoring has begun.

  21. Rick,
    I decided I couldn’t be bothered to respond to your accusation of climate scientists lying, and I’m not all that interested in your accusations of censorship. You can try harder, if you wish.

  22. russellseitz says:

    Tobis has courageously gone fishing in deep waters- he took on Bruno Latour ( last seen here last month discoursing on the semiotics of the Anthropocene) in response to his belated acknowledgement of climate change as normative science in a 2004 essay, Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern that predates Naomi Oreskes in citing Frank Lunz application of the soft science of advertising to subverting science communication .

    Latour’s essay , though long, is worth the read if only to remind us that the culture wars were aleready in full swing when the climate wars escalated into political confrontation.

  23. Willard says:

    Zest and gusto, love and light:

    Read that thread.

  24. Susan Anderson says:

    Willard, you illustrate why I think you should continue to do what you do. That’s brilliant (not exactly news, but we need to be reminded). I get annoyed at people who don’t realize Putin plays the long game.

  25. tonylurker says:

    “A simple Resolution of Disapproval passed by both houses and signed by the President will do it. Last I checked the GOP will control both houses of congress and the Presidency. So, any optimism based on the Endangerment Finding may well be misplaced.”

    That only works for the first 60 days after a rule has been implemented, that expired years ago. So now that those 60 days have expired, they need to amend the law. However, unlike the expedited procedure under the Congressional Review Act, the democrats can filibuster, and if the Republicans take that away, they still only need four Republican Senators to abstain or vote against the resolution (I’m assuming West Virginia’s Democratic Senator would vote for it). So, it’s still not quite as easy as you make it sound.

  26. russellseitz says:

    If Putin’s game is really long , climate modelers should be very afraid- he was on watch for Andropov in the KGB Second Directorate when Candidate Academician Alexandrov went missing, and Alexandrov is still dead.

  27. geoffmprice says:

    “to use a term that your interlocutor will find insulting just gives “reasons to dismiss what’s being presented”

    Can’t agree on ceding the word “skeptic” to the anti-AGW/”lukewarmer” movements. The word has meaning and credibility it has built up over centuries in the context of scientific discussions. It is the job of skeptics to challenge shallow conspiracy theorist thinking and the batteries of common fallacies that make up the bulk of anti-AGW commentary online. Skeptic organizations explicitly protest such use of the word.

    I do agree that using a loaded term like “denier” is unhelpful per this comment. “Contrarians” seems to be a reasonable compromise – I don’t think I’ve heard anyone complain about it actually…

  28. RickA says:


    Contrarian is not name calling – so I don’t object to that label.

    Having a label is convenient.

    What label do you prefer for your side?

    I have heard warmist – but I don’t know what your side prefers or what you find insulting.

  29. Marco says:

    I prefer “realist”, RickA.

  30. “I have heard warmist – but I don’t know what your side prefers or what you find insulting.”

    personally I am not that bothered if contrarians want to use insulting labels, it is usually a sign that they want to bicker about labels etc. rather than actually discuss the science in depth and put their contrarianism to the test.

  31. geoffmprice says:

    I think “warmist” is fine, perhaps amusing. Like calling someone a “round earther”. Every possible measurement and line of evidence indicates the planet is warming (from straight-up thermometers to microwave sounding to sea level to ice melt to coral death from thermal stress and on and on), so it is hard to understand how anyone would not be a “warmist”, unless explicitly endorsing a global conspiracy to invent all this empirical evidence of warming.

    Now in its defense, it has less name-calling qualities to it than “alarmist”, which is obviously intended to have a Chicken Little cultural reference. And you can take it as short for “consequential anthropogenic global warmist”. Though contrarians tend to balk at such shorthand in other cases, e.g. “but climate always changes!” as stubborn, constant and tedious rejoinder to the common use of “climate change” short for “abrupt/consequential/modern anthropogenic climate change”.

    Generally I think most tend to describe ourselves as pro-science, meaning not tolerating unsupported conspiracy theories or fraud claims against scientists and preferring/defending conventional forms of scientific evidence and theory validation (peer-review, reproducible empirical evidence, etc.) vs, unvalidated blog science and so forth. “Warmist”, “pro-AGW”, “AGWist”, “pro-mainstream”, “pro-consensus” are all understandable terms. Cheers Rick.

    “personally I am not that bothered if contrarians want to use insulting labels, it is usually a sign that they want to bicker about labels etc. rather than actually discuss the science in depth and put their contrarianism to the test”. True, but discussing the science in depth is absolutely the *least* fun part about contrarianism, and one can hardly blame the common avoidance of that.

  32. It may be the least fun part, but it is also the part that would give a contrarian position some value (c.f. round-Earth contrarians). If someone wants to argue a position, without caring whether the arguments are valid, there is a label for that, provided for us by Harry Frankfurt ;o)

  33. RickA says:


    Thank you.

    I agree the planet is warming.

    The question which I find most pertinent is how much of the warming can be attributed to humans.

    I don’t think the answer to that is very clear yet.

    More science is being done all the time and hopefully we will have more clarity on this in 30 or 60 years.

    I personally do not think humans caused the el nino of 2015-2016.

    I personally do not think humans caused all of the warming from 1905 to 1945.

    I seriously doubt humans caused all of the warming from 1950 to the present.

    Yet many warmists argue with me and say that humans caused more than 100% of the warming from 1950 to 2016.

    I think that is wrong.

  34. Rick,
    We’ve been over this before and your reason for thinking that it can’t be more than 100% is because that just doesn’t seem right to you. If we’re going to start this again, you’re going to have to have a better reason than that.

  35. geoffmprice says:

    “I personally do not think humans caused the el nino of 2015-2016”

    This doesn’t help your cause – stating this implies you think scientists are arguing the opposite, which they are not. This just indicates that you are not following the story.

    The *relevant* question is why did the ’16 El Nino hit a temp peak about 0.35°C higher than that in ’98, despite registering as similar scale on all relevant Nino-measuring indices. Do you have an opinion on *that*? And more importantly, do you have any evidence to support whatever that opinion is, i.e. why you think the warming is not related to the physical greenhouse warming we directly observe to be causing this?

    1905-1945: There was plenty of greenhouse gas emissions happening, and remember that efficacy declines some logarithmically, so even if the volume of GHGs today is much larger it doesn’t mean the influence back then was proportionally linear (though there is clearly less certainty the farther back you go because of poorer measurements, and I’m not personally very versed on latest thinking about this period.) Do you have something substantial to share about it? Meaning again, do you have any evidence or physical-based logic to support your opinion?

    “humans caused more than 100% of the warming from 1950 to 2016” – you should at least try to convey that you understand what is meant by this, your phrasing suggests you think the idea of “more than 100% of warming” absurd. It simply means that best modeling suggests that the natural slow cooling we saw for 8,000 years entering into the modern period might have continued more or less through the 20th century, but instead was reversed by greenhouse warming. Why do you think that is so implausible?

    Sounds like you just having a personal opinion different from what best evidence shows is a pattern here? As much as I’m happy to respect you as a person, opinions aren’t worth much, as ATTP notes.

  36. Willard says:

    > We’ve been over this before […]

    Indeed we did.



    And also:

    Also here:

    And that’s just 2016.

    Before that:

    Perhaps even there too:

    I think it may be time to give that a rest, RickA.

    Don’t think of replacing it with your favorite “let’s pick the lowest sensitivity justified disingenuousness can buy and say it’s consistent with the IPCC’s reports,” pretty please with sugar on it.

  37. Willard writes: “Here … there …and also …also here … And that’s just 2016 …”

    And that’s just here at ATTP’s. I’m sure he’s been peddling the same opinion elsewhere, for instance over at Greg Laden’s

  38. geoffmprice says:

    (I appreciate the context, regular folks. 😉

  39. Susan Anderson says:

    Russell: Yes.
    — new(old) topic:
    On the willingness to be sidelined ceding ground to the argument that it is OK to call unskeptical “skeptics” skeptics is a great waste of time and energy, and wrong to boot. Whether or not it is a Rove instruciton, the neverending distraction is intentional, and does not work out in favor of humanity, that is, supposing that reality matters.

  40. Fergus Brown says:

    Rather than the current terminology, I’m inclined to refer to ‘them’ as Memebots. Their endless recirculating of the same tired BS is either automatic, or so predictable it may as well be. Note, the term can also apply to others who just recycle the wrong kind of garbage.

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