climate change media science

The internet and the edge of the world

I recently read this rather amusing/tragic story about the Flat Earth Society. Believe it or not, there is such a society, and they really do believe that the earth is flat. It’s preposterous of course, but the president of the society is adamant that he isn’t trying to be difficult. “To look around, the world does appear to be flat” he says, “so I think it is incumbent on others to prove ­decisively that it isn’t. And I don’t think that burden of proof has been met yet.”

If a thousand years of physical science, gravity, space travel, or even a big telescope isn’t enough to tip the burden of proof in favour of mainstream opinion, there’s nothing left to offer. A group of people maintaining such arcane opinions are probably best ignored. On the other hand, it’s pretty remarkable that there are enough flat earthers to maintain a society. The internet has a unique capacity for providing rallying points for obscure beliefs.

In the past, claiming you believed in a flat earth was likely to get you shunned by friends and family, but the internet gives you access to a world of opinion. No matter how obtuse your point of view, there is bound to be someone out there who will agree with you and reinforce your preconceived ideas. If you want to believe that earth was colonised by aliens, or that Princess Diana was assassinated by the Queen, you’ll find all the ‘evidence’ you need to prove yourself correct.

Obviously I can’t complain. I’ve found people in the simple living or the post-growth movements that I’d never have met otherwise, and some of them are now good friends. The internet has an incredible power to bring like minded people together, and that’s wonderful. It’s also very dangerous.

I’m thinking of course, of climate skeptics, regularly dubbed flat earthers by the media (which must annoy the actual flat earthers). Hardly anybody wants to believe climate change is happening. We’d all much prefer it wasn’t, and a quick google search reveals that, lo and behold, we can all relax. It’s a hoax and a scheme hatched by Al Gore to get our money. Phew.

Unfortunately the scientific process is its own worst enemy when it the internet comes into play. If the scientists are doing their job, each new theory or piece of research will be critiqued and examined. Then the work will be defended, improved, or perhaps abandoned if a serious flaw is uncovered. Science moves forward through the constant refining of peer review, and it’s only if you follow the conversation and work in the field that you get the whole picture. An internet search will jump you into that process at any point you choose, ignoring all the work on either side, according to the parameters you set. If you search for “hockey stick graph discredited” you’ll naturally find masses of counter-arguments challenging Michael Mann’s famous climate change graphic. Google won’t return the findings of the National Academy of Science examination of Mann’s work, which agreed with it, because Google knew you didn’t want those.

People have always been able to gather around whatever lies make them happy. “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest” as Paul Simon put it. The internet just makes it very easy and very quick. We find what we want to hear, repeat it, and it snowballs into a critical mass of misinformation.

I’ve written before that climate change is the first global crisis of the internet age. The internet is both the leading source of climate falsehoods, and the best way to mobilise action. How strange that the same tool that could lead us safety could just as easily lead us over the edge.


  1. I enjoyed this post a lot even though I don’t usually read articles that aren’t about microfinance. I went to their website and while I was amused to read these people think everyone is part of a conspiracy theory (as if we have the time), I was very frustrating as well. I wish I could force them to see the error of their ways.

    It all boils down to how the internet is used. I was reminded of a girl who committed suicide several years ago after joining a pro-choice group on the internet, that encouraged people with suicidal tendencies to go ahead with their plans.

    That’s plain morbid and immoral in numerous ways.

    I personally think people’s freedoms should be curtailed in these areas. The free market economy isn’t the solution to everything. Evidently, it’s helping some groups reverse the process of evolution.

    1. Hiding behind the paywall are the actual NAS findings.

      Mann… “…the National Academy of Sciences, affirmed my research findings in an exhaustive independent review published in June 2006 ..”

      The NAS report did nothing of the sort, and in fact validated all of the significant criticisms of McIntyre & McKitrick (M&M) and the Wegman Report:

      It’s funny how when everyone thought the NAS “affirmed” Mann’s work it was held up as irrefutable. After it was shown that the NAS actually largely agreed with those critical of Mann’s work, they tried to undermine the same report, which Gerald North, the chairman of the NAS panel agreed with under oath before Congress.

      So which is it? Either the NAS report affirmed Mann or it did not. Can’t have it both ways.

      1. The NAS indicated that the hockey stick method systematically underestimated the uncertainties in the data (p. 107).

      2. In subtle wording, the NAS agreed with the M&M assertion that the hockey stick had no statistical significance, and was no more informative about the distant past than a table of random numbers. The NAS found that Mann’s methods had no validation (CE) skill significantly different from zero. In the past, however, it has always been claimed that the method has a significant nonzero validation skill. Methods without a validation skill are usually considered useless. Mann’s data set does not have enough information to verify its ‘skill’ at resolving the past, and has such wide uncertainty bounds as to be no better than the simple mean of the data (p. 91). M&M said that the appearance of significance was created by ignoring all but one type of test score, thereby failing to quantify all the relevant uncertainties. The NAS agreed (p. 110), but, again, did so in subtle wording.

      3. M&M argued that the hockey stick relied for its shape on the inclusion of a small set of invalid proxy data (called bristlecone, or “strip-bark” records). If they are removed, the conclusion that the 20th century is unusually warm compared to the pre-1450 interval is reversed. Hence the conclusion of unique late 20th century warmth is not robust—in other word it does not hold up under minor variations in data or methods. The NAS panel agreed, saying Mann’s results are “strongly dependent” on the strip-bark data (pp. 106-107), and they went further, warning that strip-bark data should not be used in this type of research (p. 50).

      4. The NAS said ” Mann et al. used a type of principal component analysis that tends to bias the shape of the reconstructions”, i.e. produce hockey sticks from baseball statistics, telephone book numbers, and monte carlo random numbers.

      5. The NAS said Mann downplayed the “uncertainties of the published reconstructions…Even less confidence can be placed in the original conclusions by Mann et al. (1999) that ‘the 1990s are likely the warmest decade, and 1998 the warmest year, in at least a millennium.’

      Mann never mentions that a subsequent House Energy and Commerce Committee report chaired by Edward Wegman totally destroyed the credibility of the ‘hockey stick’ and devastatingly ripped apart Mann’s methodology as ‘bad mathematics’. Furthermore, when Gerald North, the chairman of the NAS panel — which Mann claims ‘vindicated him’ – was asked at the House Committee hearings whether or not they agreed with Wegman’s harsh criticisms, he said they did:

      CHAIRMAN BARTON: Dr. North, do you dispute the conclusions or the methodology of Dr. Wegman’s report?
      DR. NORTH [Head of the NAS panel]: No, we don’t. We don’t disagree with their criticism. In fact, pretty much the same thing is said in our report.
      DR. BLOOMFIELD [Head of the Royal Statistical Society]: Our committee reviewed the methodology used by Dr. Mann and his co-workers and we felt that some of the choices they made were inappropriate. We had much the same misgivings about his work that was documented at much greater length by Dr. Wegman.
      WALLACE [of the American Statistical Association]: ‘the two reports [Wegman’s and NAS] were complementary, and to the extent that they overlapped, the conclusions were quite consistent.’

      As for “Flat Earthers”. They support the idea of Mann made globull warming.

      It’s the Climate Models that view the /earth as flat.

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