Scientists have a tendency to deal with nonsense by ignoring it. Papers that make it into the peer-reviewed literature that are obviously wrong are usually left to die a quiet death. They don’t get cited, they don’t get replicated, they don’t even get talked about (at least among the experts). It’s not worth anyone’s time (or career) to publish response papers demonstrating that nonsense is nonsense. And of course, nonsense that doesn’t even get into peer reviewed papers is even easier to ignore. The mainstream media and internet discussions are so full of it that many scientists just tune it out.

But outside of a particular scientific field, lay observers find it hard to tell nonsense from sound science. So the nonsense spreads insidiously, and the public discourse diverges ever further from the scientific one.

Luckily, there are a few people who are willing to devote themselves to tackling the nonsense head on. Ben Goldacre is my favourite example – he runs a newspaper column, blog and book called Bad Science. It helps that he’s a witty writer and an even wittier speaker. (It probably also helps that he’s British).

Of course, climate science gets more than its fair share of nutters spouting nonsense, so it’s good to see at last a more coordinated effort among science communicators to counter it. SkepticalScience has been doing a wonderful job over the past couple of years at documenting all the false memes about climate change floating around on the internet, and countering them with actual science. Now they’ve ratcheted it up a notch, with a complete round up of all the nonsense spouted by a certain Christopher Monckton. I sure hope this becomes a series, as there are plenty of other serial nutcases out there spreading misinformation about climate science.

After perusing the list of Monckton’s Myths, I don’t have much more to add. Except to note that, after all, this is the man who argues that Christianity is likely to be a better arbiter than science of what’s true about the real world:

Perhaps, therefore, no one should be allowed to practice in any of the sciences […] unless he can certify that he adheres to one of those major religions – Christianity outstanding among them – that preach the necessity of morality, and the reality of the distinction between that which is so and that which is not. [Christopher Monckton, Jan 13, 2010]

Mr. Monckton’s grasp of epistemology seems to be as bad as his grasp of climate science. (Unfortunately, Monckton is British too, so there goes my theory about that…)

3 Comments

  1. Skeptical Science is a wonderful resource.

    I had thought along the lines of combating misinformation head on through more technological means, inspired partly by the @AI_AGW twitter bot.

    I’m part-way through creating a proof-of-concept Firefox extension that automatically highlights and (using regexes) annotates certain incorrect or misleading phrases in any web page the user loads. The extension would acquire its information from a server somewhere, and this would be regularly updated to reflect the new and varied species of fallacy making the rounds on denialist blogs. (I’m very bad at finishing things, but we’ll see how it goes…)

    There two big unknowns in this: (1) how to get people to use the extension, and (2) how to update the database.

    On (1), the obvious risk is that of preaching to the converted. However, what if there was no restriction on the type of misinformation addressed? What if the system targeted everything – every form of denialism, and other assorted myths and deceptions? Delusions of grandeur, perhaps, but if we could build such a resource, I suspect they would come.

    On (2), the problem of database maintenance might become a surrealistic nightmare as a result of the solution I just proposed to problem (1). At least, it would if it were undertaken by a single individual. If there were a community of experts involved, maybe it would not be quite such a challenge.

    This is a lot to get off the ground, of course. Just thought I’d share.

  2. Dave: that’s a very interesting concept. There’s potentially some serious “who controls the database” issues, but a wikipedia-style approach might work. Keep me posted – I’d love to take a look.

  3. Steve, thanks for the mention. Yes, we are planning to continue the series – not only adding more Monckton Myths but publishing series on other misinformers. A big debate point is who to do next – we’re not exactly starved for choice. :-)

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