Friday, February 17th 2012, 4:47 AM EST
It looks increasingly like the Heartland Institute strategy document that is making gleeful rounds of climate alarm blogs is a fake — Heartland claims it is such, and details about the document and its metadata seem to confirm this. But just because a document is fake does not mean there is not a lot to learn from it, both about its authors and the reaction of those who received it. I want to offer two bits of learning from this episode.
The myth and reality of climate skeptics
One reason I am fairly certain the document is fake is this line from the supposed skeptic strategy document:
His effort will focus on providing curriculum that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science.
For those of us at least somewhat inside the tent of the skeptic community, particularly the science-based ones Heartland has supported in the past, the goal of “dissuading teachers from teaching science” is a total disconnect. I have never had any skeptic in even the most private of conversations even hint at such a goal. The skeptic view is that science education vis a vis climate and other environmental matters tends to be shallow, or one-sided, or politicized — in other words broken in some way and needing repair. In this way, most every prominent skeptic that works even a bit in the science/data end of things believes him or herself to be supporting, helping, and fixing science. In fact, many skeptics believe that the continued positive reception of catastrophic global warming theory is a function of the general scientific illiteracy of Americans and points to a need for more and better science education (see here for an overview of the climate debate that does not once use the ad hominem words “myth”, “scam” or “lie”).
The only people who believe skeptics are anti-science per se, and therefore might believe skeptics would scheme to dissuade teachers from teaching science, are the more political alarmists (a good example was posted today right here at Forbes, which you might want to contrast with this). For years, I presume partially in an effort to avoid debate, certain alarmists have taken the ad hominem position that skeptics are anti-science. And many probably well-meaning alarmists believe this about skeptics (since they may have not actually met any skeptics to know differently). The person who wrote this fake memo almost had to be an alarmist, and probably was of the middling, more junior sort, the type of person who does not craft the talking points but is a recipient of them and true believer.
The media mono-culture
I will admit that I sometimes carelessly use the word “bias” when referring to the media. But I really don’t like that word, because it is too … I am not sure the right word here … active. It implies some kind of active, knowing conspiracy. That may occasionally be the case, but I don’t think it is the norm.
What is normal is that we all have a tendency to be skeptical of information or opinions that don’t fit our world view, and more quick to accept, possibly with less evidence, conclusions that do fit our world view. People in the media are no different. And if beliefs in the media were well-mixed, there would always be someone on duty who will express healthy skepticism for any new data, study, or report. The problem in the media is less one of active bias, but that in many ways it has formed a mono-culture – almost everyone shares virtually the same world view and set of assumptions. They do and don’t express skepticism for all the same things.
One of the best examples of this was a “fact” that bounced around the media for years that there were a million homeless people in the United States. The media repeated this statistic constantly, without ever once checking into it. Finally, some lone sole actually bothered to ask the homeless advocate how he had come up with the figure, and the advocate admitted he had just made it up. And even after that story came out, the media still used the statistic. Why? Because most everyone in the media shared the same belief that homelessness was a problem, and that even if the number was not a million surely it was large (this very post-modern view of truth and facts represents another problem both with the media and a lot of academia, but I will save that for another day).
Coming back to the the Heartland papers, let’s consider in this context of media mono-culture the example of Andy Revkin. Revkin is a journalist at the New York Times and proprietor of the Dot Earth blog, which frequently discusses climate issues. A couple of years ago Mr. Revkin refused to publish anything from the infamous “Climategate” emails (consisting of communications mainly between a number of scientists at and associated with East Anglia University on their climate work). He argued that these were stolen documents and he was not going to post any of them. Fair enough. But just this week, after having the documents in his hands for just a few minutes, Revkin immediately began tweeting out and publishing details of the stolen Heartland documents.
What’s the difference? Perhaps there is some reason I have not yet heard that made one fair game and one off-limits. But it certainly appears that Revkin, who is undeniably sympathetic to the alarmist side, made this decision based on his “biases” rather than any real news difference. My guess is that Revkin was skeptical of the authenticity or completeness of the Climategate emails because they showed climate scientists acting in a way he did not expect, and probably hopes is not true. On the other hand, the Heartland documents likely exactly fit his views and criticisms of skeptics — in other words, they immediately “felt” authentic to him because they fit his worldview — and so he ran with them without skepticism, delay, or scrutiny (or even bothering to check with Heartland about their authenticity, a basic step even the bloggers who released the Climategate emails took).
Don’t misunderstand me — I don’t have a problem with the New York Times employing an opinion blogger with an opinion, or that this opinion is different than mine. But it appears that the New York Times missed a big story (Climategate) and got suckered by a fake story (Heartland) because no one in the Times has a worldview on climate much different from Revkin’s. Compounding the error, Time, Newsweek, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, and most major newspapers also have no one on their staffs with a counter-balancing world-view. So they all too made the same mistake missing Climategate, and are susceptible to the same mistake on Heartland.
Postscript: Apparently the financials and donor information in the package of Heartland documents are real. However, these strike me as a total yawner. Heartland gets money from wealthy donors and spends it on skeptics? You don’t say. Conservatives trumpeted a similar non-revelation this week on the donor list and financials of Media Matters. You mean they get their money from rich liberals and give to other liberal groups? Absolutely no scandal in either case, though I guess the data has rally-the-base utility, i.e. one can say “hey, look at that group we don’t like – did you know it is getting money from people we don’t like and giving to other groups we don’t like?” Otherwise, I can’t see why we should possibly be interested.
Postscript #2: If the strategy memo turns out to be fake as I believe it to be, I am starting the countdown now for the Dan-Rather-esque “fake but accurate” defense of the memo — ie, “Well, sure, the actual document was faked but we all know it represents what these deniers are really thinking.” This has become a mainstay of post-modern debate, where facts matter less than having the politically correct position.
Postscript #3: At some level the parallel to Climategate here is limited. Both are data dumps of inside data obtained against an organization’s will. But one gives us insights into actions of a privately-funded advocacy group. The other gives us insights into the actions of government-funded scientists and institutions producing studies that are at the core of policy decisions.
Postscript #4: By the way, if for some reason this strategy document is real, I will be quick to call out Heartland for being total losers on these pages.
Update #1: Is Revkin himself seeking to win my fake-but-accurate race? When presented with the fact that he may have published a fake memo, Revkin wrote:
looking back, it could well be something that was created as a way to assemble the core points in the batch of related docs.
It sounds like he is saying that while the memo is faked, it may have been someones attempt to summarize real Heartland documents. Fake but accurate! By the way, I don’t think he has any basis for this supposition, as no other documents have come to light with stuff like “we need to stop teachers from teaching science.”
Update #2: Megan McArdle has this observation about the style of the strategy memo in question
The memo, by contrast, uses more negative language about the efforts it’s describing, while trying to sound like they think it’s positive. It’s like the opposition political manifestos found in novels written by stolid ideologues; they can never quite bear (or lack the imagination) to let the villains have a good argument. Switch the names, and the memo could have been a page ripped out of State of Fear or Atlas Shrugged.
Basically, it reads like it was written from the secret villain lair in a Batman comic. By an intern.
Like I said, useful, though not to understand Heartland’s world view, but to understand that of certain alarmists.