The Island of Doubt

Over at Linked In, the professionally oriented social networking service, there’s a discussion group called “Climate Change – I care!” Most of its members are those who share a concern for what anthropogenic global warming is threatening to do to civilization as we know it. Until this week, membership was open to anyone. But the moderator just ejected one member who has, shall we say, a contrarian point of view. Was that a wise thing to do?

The member, Leigh Haugen, only posted pseudoscientific rants about the conspiratorial nature of the entire climatology community, and if he does actually care about climate change, it’s clearly a different sort of care. At the beginning his occasional post was little more than annoying. It was a relatively simple and quick exercise to post a rebuttal with a reference to peer-reviewed science. Not that that would change Haugen’s mind, but at least the exchanges had the appearance of respectful back-and-forth.

But over the past weeks, Haugen’s posts became increasingly offensive. His last missive, apparently offered him as a farewell before being removed from the group, included a series of links to stories about the recent cold weather that has taken hold over much of North America and Europe, a plea to “spare me one of your ridiculous lectures about the difference between weather and climate,” an implication that one scientist quoted in a story about snowfall was getting rich off his research grant, and this sign-off:

Silence all Dissent! Avoid all debate!
Joseph Goebbels would be so proud of you!
…enjoy lying to each other – how fun and productive for you.

One could argue that his membership in “Climate Change — I care!” is inappropriate, but perhaps Haugen really does believe that people are being misled by thousands of scientists who are only in the game to enrich themselves at the generous trough that is the climatology research grant pool. His posts were easy to ignore, too. Accusing fellow group members of implicitly embrace of Nazism and “lying to each other” is another thing entirely, though, and I find it hard to fault the moderator for removing the offending member.

I remain a little uncomfortable with the decision, however. Haugen’s right-wing politics clearly are at odds with most of the rest of the group. He’s a member of ResistNet, a reactionary social media network that is dedicated to opposing “the efforts to move our nation away from our heritage of individual liberties toward “brave new world” of collectivism. ResistNet is designed to give citizens a new level of networking resources to organize the Patriotic Resistance.” But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have a right to engage those of us who think such opinions are silly and/or dangerous. Indeed, I still think it’s important to understand where our debating opponents are coming from, and I found Haugen’s posts quite informative — not on climate science, but as a window into the psychology of those who can’t bring themselves to believe the preponderance of scientific evidence.

There are plenty of examples of similarly misinformed commenters at this blog, but it was still interesting and sometimes amusing to read Haugens attempts at persuasion. And I will miss them.

I expect some related discussions will come up next week at a ScienceOnline ’10 session I will be attending called “Online Civility and Its (Muppethugging) Discontents.” If you’re not registered, it’s too late to get involved, but hopefully there will be robust followup at the conference wiki.


  1. #1 Matthew Putman
    January 6, 2010

    It doesn’t serve the group to throw this guy out. Having him as a part of the discussion will do one of two things. It may be a healthy debate, which gets everyone thinking. From what you say about his posts, I doubt this is the likely outcome. The other, more probable result of his rants is that it will show his reactionary politics to be ignorant and full of prejudice. If it does that, it doesn’t hurt anyone that is concerned about Global Warming.

  2. #2 david
    January 6, 2010

    Unless the group was created specifically for engaging in such debate, then he was rightly kicked and should probably have been kicked much earlier.

    The opposite of censorship is not open academic discourse; it is 4chan.

  3. #3 greg
    January 6, 2010

    how to deal with trolls is one of those things that messageboards has never been able to solve. more and more we are learning how much contrary views are important to learning, and there is always the fear that by eliminating trolls whenever they disagree (and in this case look only to provoke and offend) will only make the cocoon walls of internet social groups ever thicker. i hate to say it, but we lose something when we banish the trolls. a better solution is some sort of silence option for each user, where users are given the chance to put that user on ignore, like on facebook. it would then be put to choice by the individual user if they read these other viewpoints. Lateral decision making instead of top down can be beneficial in this case.

    I have lost all interest in arguing with trolls. it’s so debilitating. But there is also something equally disconcerting about that false sense of security that constantly chatting with like minds produces.

  4. #4 Hank Fox
    January 6, 2010

    Even when people disagree with you, Reason has easily-recognizable hallmarks. If you’re talking to people of Reason, there’s a gain to both sides in disagreement.

    But if you’re talking to people who don’t reason, can’t reason, especially if they’re angry and serve to hurt both the discussion and the participants, seriously, it’s no use listening.

    I’ve been on blogs that were killed by trolls. (And my experience is that one insistent, smarmy Christian can kill a new-formed atheist group in less than three meetings.)

    And FUCK, if you’re trying to build a community, you shouldn’t have to have a fight with some vicious, hateful little prick every time you visit. Nobody has that much time, or heart.

    Yes, it’s good to question such a decision each time, but some people really are poison, and should be jettisoned early after being recognized.

  5. #5 Luboš Motl
    January 6, 2010

    I think it was a wise thing to “purify” the newsgroup because when this hoax is really over, the list of its members may be used to put all of them into jail without further ado and analyses.

  6. #6 Pierre Caron
    January 6, 2010

    Dissenting voices are useful for a number of reasons. As James mentioned, it’s a valuable insight into their psychology. Have you noticed some of them view the world in absolute terms rather than relative, as black-and-white certainties whereas we see things in grays and probabilities? This is very instructive.
    It is also good practice for us to rebut their arguments every time they rant. Referring them to peer-reviewed science may work to convince some, and a good fact-based discussion can work for others. Mostly, we need to exercise our logic muscles and powers of persuasion.
    So, next time you find yourself in a “town-hall meeting” where these folks will shout as loud as they can to “counter” our facts, we need to be equally strong in our rhetoric to oppose them. Practice doing this on blogs, message boards and the like. People will be better convinced by calm knowledgeable folks voicing easily retrieved facts than the yelling crazies.
    There’s another reason to let them in – it kills the view that our community is inflexible and closed to outsiders.
    Now I’m conflicted too about letting this jerk continue the privilege to speak. Was a forceful warning issued by the moderator prior to his ejection? I hope so, for civility’s sake.
    Just browse this blog to see how nasty these idiots get – but reading them is part of the fun!

  7. #7 Jeremy
    January 6, 2010

    I’m with Jonathan Swift on this one: “It is impossible to reason someone out of something that he did not reason himself into in the first place.” So I no longer even try. (Although even the magic of the interwebs can’t seem to turn up the original source.)

    Let them into the forum, and then ignore them.

  8. #8 Bean
    January 6, 2010

    I frequent several message forums where some of the off-topic areas get rather… interesting. There are relative experts there in various fields (science, medicine, engineering, etc) and so the debate over touchy topics can get heated.

    And I agree with Pierre, part of the reason of the American public being so willing to disbelieve is because while the denialist side was busy banging their drum and singing their songs, the scientists were attempting to let their works speak for them without actually speaking themselves. Well that may work for more rational minds and those who view reality in shades of grey; but it won’t work for John and Jane Q Public. J&J get their information from the easily available sources like the TV media and Drudge Report. While some of the brief analyses seen on TV media can lean in the correct general direction; most of the time they are oversimplifying the important parts which allows the denialists to play their logic games without any real challenge. When they do briefly come across true pro-AGW people (versus the sheep who just parrot what their friends say – both sides of politics have plenty of them) outside of those media sources, those people are usually unable to put forth any kind of rational argument even though there are TONS or resources out there for doing this. So that person goes on their merry way and sub-consciously assumes that pro-AGW people don’t have a damn clue.

    We should all practice on internet trolls. It helps us frame our ideas better and become better at explaining complex subjects. As a ex-denialist, I found that attempting to analyze MOST of the AGW arguments from the pro-AGW guys to be very difficult because most of it was nothing but insults and similar heresay. It really is quite pathetic. It took a concerted effort to go research the data for myself and form a real opinion about it. Most people don’t have the mindset for that (or even know that they CAN).

    The trolls want to incite anger within you; they either consciously or sub-consciously want to piss you off enough to where your points lose their credulity in the public eye. Be nice and polite to them and respond to their arguments in a way that promotes obvious reason and logic. It will piss them off to no end, a few people might be more inclined to read about what you’re talking about, and your debate skills will become the better for it.

  9. #9 Lance
    January 6, 2010

    So Bean, you were a “denialist” huh?

    I consider myself a skeptic not a “denialist”. What’s the difference you ask?

    Well a blog dedicated to “denialism” right here at SceinceBlogs defines…

    “Denialism: the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. These false arguments are used when one has few or no facts to support one’s viewpoint against a scientific consensus or against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They are effective in distracting from actual useful debate using emotionally appealing, but ultimately empty and illogical assertions.”

    So you knew you were wrong but were just employing “rhetorical tactics” and “empty and illogical assertions” to “distract from actual useful debate”?

    Did you have a religious conversion to realize your sins? Did you enter a twelve step program to cleanse your self of your twisted and anti-social behavior?

    Wow! Do you think I am a “denialist” and I don’t even know it?

    Here I am thinking that I have spent years looking at the evidence, and based on a reasoned systematic analysis of that evidence I don’t see a reason to believe the earth’s climate system is headed for a catastrophe and really I might just be an unwitting ally of the “denialism industry”?

    Help me brother Bean! How can I be saved?

  10. #10 Janet
    January 6, 2010

    The essence of free speech involves allowing the dissenters and even the crazies to have their say. If this really is a group for and about people who care about climate change, the members should be able to dismiss this guy’s rants as nothing more than fear and narcissism masquerading as skepticism. The moderator is underestimating the intelligence of the others in the group. Let peer pressure reign — it’s much more effective than censorship.

  11. #11 megan
    January 6, 2010

    Well denialists and teabaggers like to throw the poo back that’s throw at them more aptly. The brown shirts and Nazis fit their rhetoric more but somehow in their blindness suddenly misunderstand and equate ‘fascism/Nazism’ with autocracy and authoritarian. They sound like the comedic black prisoner by the Wayans, who KNOWS law and legal terms but uses them inappropriately. By giving them credence by allowing them access to a venue with stated goals that they do not hold isn’t being fair and balanced but naively patronizing and self-defeating as no one is going into THEIR domains to counter argue and dismantle their weak

  12. #12 dhogaza
    January 6, 2010

    Help me brother Bean! How can I be saved

    Well, you could learn a bit about the subject, for starters.

    For instance, remember to say “it’s been cooling for 11 years” rather than “10 years” (and, perhaps, flip from 13 month to 25 month running averages like Roy Spencer did this month (without explanation) when you’re in peril of being wrong even if you cherry-pick 1998 as the starting point.

    Dr. Roy Spencer is a real live scientist, which perhaps is why he’s a better liar than you are …

  13. #13 greigos
    January 6, 2010

    If you think about it, democracy is a system of social organization based on the principle “loudness rules” wherein the loudest proportion of the group is more formally referred to as “the majority”. It isn’t based on the principle “logic and rationality rules”. It’s true that the liberal education that many of us are a product of celebrates logic and rationality, but liberal education for the most part also fails to systematically study and account for the prevalence of irrationality in its assessment of things. Hence, many of us stand flat-footed and speechless when we encounter it. The plain fact is that anti-intellectualism and its accompanying irrationality are huge and growing in the U.S. In my estimation, we are all in danger of being overwhelmed by it and taken over by a Fascist leaning loud-spoken majority. What to do about that threat is not obvious, but erecting walls doesn’t seem to be a viable option in the long run. To my mind, learning to include irrationality in our thinking is a more viable alternative, though it isn’t clear how we should do that. One on one would seem to be our best chance. In numbers, loudness amplifies. Predictably, we could be facing a dark and potentially bloody period in our history with many folks arming for the fight. To them, the South will not be lost again. Sad. Very sad, since for many of us, a future offered by rationality and cooperation is far brighter.

  14. #14 maxwell
    January 7, 2010

    ‘Dr. Roy Spencer is a real live scientist, which perhaps is why he’s a better liar than you are …’

    Funny, wasn’t Dr. Spencer invited to give an hour talk during the session on atmospheric feedbacks and climate change at this past AGU conference? (page 235 on the bottom lefthand corner)

    If the scientific community has known liars invited to give talks at preeminent conference maybe we should be investigating the truthfulness of all of them. Or is it that you think only the ones that disagree with you are ‘liars’?

    I seem to be a bit confused on this topic of civility online and dhogaza has provided another in a seemingly unending string of great examples why.

    When a ‘denialist’ engages in a conversation (I know it doesn’t happen often, but it does happen) it is usually met with name-calling or vitriol to end the conversation before it even begins. I have seen absolutely no ability of anyone on this blog or any others here at Scienceblogs to ‘tolerate’ an opinion of situation with respect to CO2 other than the world will end and the science says so definitively. So there can be no debate really because at the first sign that someone might be a ‘denialist’, he/she is met with a wall of denying his/her respective take on the topic.

    So when I see some of the regular contributors here claiming that ‘dissent is good if it’s reasoned dissent’ I have to laugh because from what I have seen, dissent is not only never seen as ‘good’ but isn’t tolerated with any sort of civility what so ever.

    It seems that the internet is really only good for creating a standard for your ‘opponent’ that you would never live up, whether it comes to global climate change, politics, evolution or any other controversial issue. The middle ground just doesn’t exist which is why I find these forums so frustrating. I think in the end, both sides will probably be wrong. There will be some warming due to CO2, but it won’t end the world as we know it. Hell, it might even be helpful to some species including humans. But no one here is willing to take that position because it’s a ‘moral’ loss.

  15. #15 maxwell
    January 7, 2010

    Sorry, the name of the session and Dr. Spencer’s talk are found on page 235 of the pdf found at the link, on the lower RIGHThand side. Sorry again for the confusion.

  16. #16 Thomas
    January 8, 2010

    Haugen has every right to say what he wants, there are plenty of blogs and message boards for it and those who want to confront views lika his can visit them. That doesn’t mean that he has a right to pollute every messageboard regardless of its purpose. (Given your quote “pollute” seems to be the appropriate word).

  17. #17 Ed Darrell
    January 8, 2010

    . . . perhaps Haugen really does believe that people are being misled by thousands of scientists who are only in the game to enrich themselves at the generous trough that is the climatology research grant pool.

    That’s sort of the order of the day, every day, at the rabidly popular What’s Up With That.

    And if you disagree, they’ll tell you to “be rational.” It’s fascinating to watch.

  18. #18 10,000li
    January 10, 2010


    When you wrote about “erecting walls” I immediately thought of the wall between the US and Mexico that is supposed to save us from the heathen illegals.

    It’s ironic whenever liberals use the tactics of the right and justify them by saying, “Well, THEY do it!”

  19. #19 Howie Firth
    January 12, 2010

    James, I believe that you are right. Science is a process of resolving conflict by identifying tests to differentiate betwen different interpretations of reality. So it involves the engagement of others in dialogue, not in confrontation.

    But I have to say that I do from time to time find scientists and science-supporters who take a confrontational attitude themselves. There is always a danger that if aggression is perceived, however unintended, then a defensive response is triggered.

    I believe that science has to be above the language of emotion, conflict and confrontation, and hold to its core of unemotional and rational investigation. It is of course somewhat difficult to hold on to that when under emotional attack, but somehow we have to try, because if we also allow our own emotions to dominate us, then we are lost.

    I find some of the contributions in this discussion most thoughtful. I also have a feeling that a mood of anti-intellectualism is growing and I think that we need to think very deeply about what may be causing it.

  20. #20 quatermass
    January 16, 2010

    Mr. Haugen is no doubt glorying in his martyrdom, another
    testament to Leftist intolerance. I think a more mature and
    thoughtful method of engaging divergent opinions is to address
    the angst and not add to it with potty-mouth wisecracks. We
    are witness to an increasingly polarized society wherein both
    camps proclaim “Gott mit uns” (or its atheistic counterpart),
    each side convinced of its rectitude. One place we can bridge
    the gap is in a serious quest for population control. Even if
    every proposed goal for carbon emissions is met population
    increases will render them meaningless. Angst on the Right
    is usually over further loss of personal or local control to
    centralized government. Increasing populations drive the
    necessity for such centralized planning and control. Nature
    will eventually control human populations, but the level of
    suffering involved could be fatal to civilization.

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