- JoNova - https://www.joannenova.com.au -

Skeptically mapping why Big-government research is often a waste of money

This study on “skeptics” came out in the weeks just before the Australian election. I had quite some fun with it, then promptly forgot it. (You’ll see why soon).

But Amelia Sharman, of The Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, seems genuinely interested, claiming skeptics haven’t been studied much, suggesting skeptical blogs are quite important, and wait for it, discovering that the thing that makes the most central skeptical blogs popular is that they are interested in the science.

Despite all the rumors that we are an organized funded campaign of political ideologues, she discovered we are not densely connected, not-centrally-organized, and what ho, we value a command of scientific knowledge. If perhaps she was hoping to uncover some secret structure that would reveal a coordinated chain of command, she must have been disappointed.

To her credit, she called it as the results described it. However that post-modern education leaves poor Sharman wandering in the dark.

I feel like such a killjoy. Usually when academics reach out to the skeptics to “study” us, it is to attack us. So I ought to be grateful that Amelia Sharman is one of the few who appears to be doing it more nicely — even impartially (sort of). It’s a big step up. But I can’t help it, the skeptic in me is … skeptical. It should be a badge of honor. Here JoNova is listed with the ground-breaking Watts Up and inestimable Climate Audit:

A network of 171 individual blogs is identified, with three blogs in particular found to be the most central: Climate Audit, JoNova and Watts Up With That.

What an honor. Bravo Bravo. I’m touched.

Figure 1: The climate sceptical blogosphere, where round nodes are category 1
(openly sceptical) and square nodes are category 2 (self-proclaimed ‘openminded’)

Jo, Anthony and Steve are some “central” grey dots in the black scribble. (Ask how much has your knowledge of the universe been increased.)

Despite the notoriety invoked by the conclusion – I’m dubious: The language is sloppy, the data iffy, the main variable has a low signal to noise ratio, and cause and effect is back to front. This is not science, nor is it about science. It’s barely sociology. (Sorry Amelia.)

Firstly, we’re mapping the skeptical world using what… blogrolls? Maybe that works for big corporate bodies with committees that keep those things up to date, who have time to consider and ponder, but, and I hate to say it, but for this this solo operator my blogroll is something I think about 0.0001% of the time. I just don’t use it. I forget it’s even there. A link could go defunct and I might notice two years later. Some people who deserve a link had to prod me, which means I’m bound to be missing valuable sites. There is information in there, true, let me just say (trying to be kind) it’s better than reading tea-leaves. Though the result resembles them and if you ask me what this means, I’d say it means tax dollars should be better spent.

Secondly, the magic mud that is post-modern science makes an appearance early on. This next passage essentially says that climate science can never be resolved. It’s not a rational debate. We can’t measure success, or know which side is right, but there is a pointed note telling everyone that skeptics say that climate change is just another attempt to diminish their freedom. This is coded way to suggest that skeptics are ideologically opposed and not very rational.

In contrast to controversies such as the health impacts of tobacco smoking which is no longer widely publicly disputed, the scientifically abstract nature of climate science and its inherently values-laden character means that scientific evidence alone is  inadequate to drive policy decision-making (Hulme 2009). Hoffman (2011b) argues that the climate debate may have entered into the realm of what Pielke (2007) coins “abortion politics”, that is, a situation where no amount of scientific information can reconcile the different values held on a certain topic. While a speaking truth to power model would suggest that climate change could resolved by systematically uncovering factual knowledge, this “rational-instrument” approach whereby science is seen as providing ‘verifiable facts about reality on which rational policy decisions can be based’ (Gulbrandsen 2008: 100) is inadequate. The range of potential policy responses to climate change each hold deeply embedded ideological implications, with Hoffman providing the example of attendees at a climate sceptics’ conference in 2010 stating that ‘the issue isn’t the issue’; instead, that ‘climate change is just another attempt to diminish our freedom’ (2011b: 3).

In short  thanks to academia, Amelia has been sold a bag of rocks. The climate is not “values laden”. The rain falls or it doesn’t, there is no parallel reality where it is raining on free marketeers but not raining on socialists. It’s not about whether the rain has the right to fall, or whether we should be pro-choice about rainfall. With atmospheric physics there is an answer. If climate science cannot be resolved by observations, then it is not science.

One day we will know how much effect CO2 has, we’ll also know whether the world got warmer. Right now, we’re not even sure whether man-made emissions drive the atmospheric level of CO2 directly.

But there is some light and the project is in a league above Lewandowsky. Thank you Amelia who says skeptics have an “important contribution” on the public debate.

While it is possible that these climate sceptical blogs are not making a significant impact on public discourse outside the online environment, this seems increasingly unlikely, as blogs are increasingly recognised as important contributors to the public debate about climate change (Guimaraes 2012).

Structure? What Structure?

The paper uses “Social network analysis (SNA)” telling us that it “is a useful method to examine blogospheres as it provides a coherent mechanism to interrogate their structure.”  All I can say  is that “Structure” is the wrong word. We are looking at a random distributed network. If anyone was hoping to find the Grand-Poo-Bah of climate skeptics at the centre of the string-art puzzle in Black and White, I have bad news.

There is no private JournoList (or SkeptoList) where we discuss strategic moves and adopt new key phrases in the PR war. There is no hub where original content gets produced by Exxon researchers and dished out in waves to each key site. The skeptics network is organic,  evolving, competitive, cooperative, and above all aimed at finding the truth. That’s why it’s winning.

Strip back the jargon and this next paragraph tells us that  skeptics do their own thing (I could have told her if she’d asked). We aren’t natural networkers, and there is no coordinated government grant or Koch run agency that keeps skeptics linked. Not that Sharman raised that possibility. But anyone reading counter arguments to skeptics would hear it over and over.

Of the 171 blogs, 114 list links in a blog-roll. Only one blog (found via the initial scoping process using WebCrawler) is not linked somehow to the remainder of the network. The geodesic distance of the entire network is measured at 2.71, that is, only 2.71 blogs on average separate each blog from another. While this may seem like a densely connected network, employing UCINET’s density algorithm shows a  density rating of only 0.0561. The density of the network examines the proportion of  possible ties that are present. A density rating of 1 means that every blog would be directly connected, with a density rating of 0.9 or less considered to be low  (Faust 2006). This result means that of all possible ties (i.e. every blog linked to every other blog) only 5.61% are present, suggesting, as can be seen in Figure 1 which visualises the blogosphere using an ego network display, that other clusters of relationships, for example through particularly central nodes, may be more important.


Wherefore art thou data?

The paper uses Adwords data to guess the traffic, and “Table 8 shows that WUWT is the most visited site, followed by JoNova and Climate Audit”.  For the record, those stats are inaccurate.  According to google analytics (which has tracking code on all my pages ) I get 50,000 unique visitors a month (not 22,000 as reported). Since you asked…

Who knew: Skeptics like to read about science?

Did it take a whole research project and thousands of dollars to find that the most popular blogs in the skeptic world write about science?

The most noteworthy finding of this research however is that the blogs identified as the most central predominantly focus on the scientific element of the climate debate.

And in a flash of banality – skeptics like linking to the science that they like reading.

The three blogs identified as the most central are also the top three most linked-to sites according to Freeman’s indegree rating.

But it doesn’t reconcile very well with the idea that skeptics are ideologues driven by politics, eh?

Skeptics are fixed on scientific detail, and value people with scientific expertise:

The climate sceptical blogosphere appears to thus be preoccupied with a particular type of climate scepticism—“scientific  scepticism”—and is less focused on other types such as ideologically-motivated scepticism which more explicitly highlights ‘attitudes and worldviews…[and] political ideology and personal values’ (Poortinga et al. 2011: 1022). The expertise that appears to be the most valued in this alternative knowledge network—command of scientific knowledge and willingness to use it to critique mainstream climate science—is thus also different to that valued in other networks of alternative knowledge.

“Alternative knowledge” my foot – be afraid, be very afraid. For this marks the stain of postmodern thinking. There  is only one climate, and there are no alternatives. On climate sensitivity, one team is right, and the other wrong, or we are both wrong. There is no alternate world where skeptics and alarmists are both right.

Conspiracy theory? What conspiracy?

The paper suffers from a loose use of English, in this case the dictionary meaning of a phrase is replaced with the name-calling use. Apparently I write sub-themes of “conspiracy” (special ones that involve no conspirators):

As the categorisation results suggest, JoNova discusses a broader range of topics (for example, fake gold bars and full-body scanners at airports), yet still has a clear interest in the scientific element of climate scepticism. The key sub-themes identified were conspiracy theories (of which climate scientists’ funding was a predominant element) and the behaviour of members of the media when discussing climate science.

But the only “conspiracy” offered as an example is a quote from this post, where I point out that bloggers are more scientific than George Monbiot. This post was about FakeGate, where George was defending Peter Gleick’s theft of private information from a non-profit group for no scientific benefit.

JoNova’s conspiratorial quote?

‘The “richest of ironies is that Monbiot relies on models and opinions, while the skeptics that he looks down upon want observations and data, true to the original tenets of the scientific method. Despite not apparently knowing what makes science different from a religion, he calls skeptics “anti-science deniers”’.’

I don’t even need to explain why this is not an example of a “conspiracy” unless George is conspiring with himself. Most of the time I write about systemic failures of scientific training, investigative journalism, or distortions that occur due to monopolistic funding. The problems are often cultural. Accusing someone of “conspiracy theories” has become the handy put-down for anyone who criticizes big-government. It’s use has become inane.

The Grantham Institute should buy a dictionary.

Cause and effect assumptions are back to front

It’s not that we are skeptics who happen to be interested in the science. Instead, it is because we are interested in science, and noticed problems with government climate science, that we became skeptics…

I do not even understand the sentence in bold (my bold).

“Thus building on Merritt and Jones’ (2000) suggestion of climate sceptics as “agents of persuasion”, this research has shown that these central nodes are key protagonists in a process of continual expert knowledge de-legitimisation and contestation. Interestingly however, and in opposition to the Cumbrian sheep farmers in Wynne’s classic investigation of expertise, these bloggers do not appear to recognise their  ‘dependency upon the scientific experts as the certified public authorities on  the issue’ (1992: 299).

I must be reading this incorrectly, the only interpretation that makes sense is that the authors think skeptics are either so stupid or delusional they don’t realize who the real experts are.  Do I have a “dependency” on certified public authorities? It doesn’t feel like it. As a taxpayer it feels like they have a dependency on me.

I presume that Certified Real Experts (TM) are the ones that lose data, hide methods, and never debate publicly?

With a bit of research, it appears the classic study by Wynne, turns out to be about a bunch of poor farmers who believed the experts and lost a lot of money because the experts were wrong. A strange study to use.

But this makes skeptics seem almost useful:

“It is possible that these central blogs in particular are not only acting as translators between scientific research and lay audiences, but, in their reinterpretation of existing climate science knowledge claims, are filling a void by opening up climate science to those who may have been previously unengaged by the mainstream knowledge process and, importantly, acting  themselves as alternative public sites of expertise for a climate sceptical audience.

Are bloggers like peer reviewed journals?

…bloggers are acting as gatekeepers and interpreters in an alternative knowledge network that is running in parallel to the ways in which, for example, scholarly journal editors carry out the same function in the mainstream academic knowledge network (McGinty 1999)

Ah the ideological dark side where effect becomes cause:

Another possible reason is that these blogs are providing a basis upon which scepticism motivated by underlying worldviews or ideological values (such as disagreement for the need for government intervention) can be scientifically justified (G. Cook et al. 2004). It is possible that this contributes to a situation whereby these blogs serve as an “echo chamber”, within which users are ‘consuming news that mesh with their worldview and ideology’ (Boykoff 2013: 15), thus contributing to Hoffman’s (2011a) concept of a logic schism within the climate debate.

Here’s the simplest interpretation… a small cadre of well paid scientists make ambitious, inept climate models that billions of dollars of decisions relies on.

Thus, while the science-policy interface is often considered to be the most active part of the climate debate (Hulme 2009), this research has shown that in the blog  environment, it is the actual nuts and bolts of the climate models, data and assumptions that are the key topics of interest. This research has also contributed to the literature on online knowledge networks by showing that these central blogs are attempting to break open Latour and Woolgar’s (1986) “black box” of science, with the lack of deference given to mainstream climate science possibly attributable again to the medium of contestation in this case. The internet enables a dramatically different type of social interaction between what Nowotny (1993: 308) terms ‘knowledge experts and protoexperts’, with the minutiae of the building blocks of scientific argument, particularly visual representations such as graphs and diagrams, laid bare for detailed, and rapid, critique. Ravetz (2012) even goes so far as to argue that the  blogosphere has actualised post-normal science, with debates about quality— particularly quality related to scientific work—a central tenet of the climate sceptical blogosphere.

 What does this mean? Actualized post normal science?

…the climate sceptical arguments emphasised in these central blogs may receive a disproportionately larger audience than is perhaps warranted when compared with the knowledge claims made by the majority of mainstream climate science (Boykoff 2013).

How influential are skeptical blogs? You will never know will you? What if the Skeptics Handbook was read by only a few, but very influential columnists — and it gave them the basics and the confidence to fill in details they were leaning towards anyhow. What if they emailed me privately every now and again. What if my blogs are read by a few national cartoonists, or maybe a comedy writer here and there, it would be very hard to track if or how those ideas and memes turned up in popular media wouldn’t it?

Or how about politicians? What if my site was followed by five or ten politicians at the highest levels, and they never admitted reading it, but they did their research and followed the debate so that they could design policies with back doors and minimal costs? That wouldn’t turn up in google stats either.

What if I went to dinner with people who were influential in business and they took on those arguments, but never mentioned my name? How would anyone know? Network researchers following blogroll links are stumbling around in the dark.

* The Grantham Institute was funded by a private donor, but oversees the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP) which is funded by the ESRC(The Economic and Social Research Council which is a non-departmental government body.)


Amelia Sharman (2013) Mapping the climate sceptical blogosphere, Open access paper can be seen here.

Star comment so far goes to Diogenese #14.2

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