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Recycling in a digital world

February 26th, 2009
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The observation that most of the falsehoods in George Will’s notorious Washington Post column on global warming have appeared in many previous columns, some going back as far as 1992, raises some interesting questions. The obvious ones like “How does this guy justify getting paid” and “Why is this paper still being published” have already been asked, so I thought I’d look a bit more at the question of recycling.

As an opinion columnist, I certainly repeat arguments from time to time, and make no apology for doing so. There’s a lot of noise out there and if you want to be heard, you have to push your viewpoint reasonably hard. At the same time, I try pretty hard not to say the same thing in the same way more than once (at least without acknowledging that I’m doing so), and to update my arguments in the light of new evidence. I may not always succeed, but I don’t think I’ve ever sent the Fin anything as thoroughly dog-eared as Will’s piece (and this is only one of a dozen or more iterations).

To repeat the same tired collection of second-hand talking points decade after decade displays not only intellectual dishonesty but a basic lack of craft values. As an academic, I’m of course more upset about the first, but as an opinion columnist I’m almost as annoyed about the second. As Chris Mooney says, this guy isn’t even phoning it in, and yet he’s regarded as a star.

Will’s talking point “they were predicting an ice age in the 1970s” might have been reasonable back in 1992, considered as a suggestion that we should not jump to conclusions on the basis of limited evidence and analysis. But the factual basis of the claim has long since been shown to be worse than dubious, and after four IPCC reports and thousands of scientific papers, the case for anthropogenic global warming rests on much more evidence than some tentative papers and a few shock headlines in newsmagazines.

Moreover, the switch from newsprint to digital publication has changed things in a couple of important ways. On the one hand, self-plagiarism is now much easier to detect. Anyone with Google can check you it. On the other hand, the justification for repetition is much more limited. When yesterdays brilliant insights lined today’s bird cage, you could be forgiven for repeating them a few months later, for readers who might have missed them the first time. But now that every column is preserved for ever, there’s much less need. And when your column consists largely of a string of tattered talking points that anyone who wants to can already find on the Internet, it has very little justification for existing.

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  1. philip travers
    February 26th, 2009 at 21:50 | #1

    I think selective amnesia belongs solely with those who claim the earth is warming from Anthropogenic warming.Because why is it necessary to suggest thousands of scientific pages are giving the evidence ,when clearly they cannot. I went to DavidIcke.com a couple of nights ago to find that some of these measurements are dependent on the U.S.A. military side of satellite use,and the sensor had misplaced 193,000 square miles of ice that has been there every year since….So I hadn’t seen that item before.In the last two days the melting of Antartica melded in with the Artic on the ABC and Fairfax[memory maybe lightly screwed down] .The ABC report tonight had on my computer at least,10,000 polar scientists.No mention if these were actually IPCC or where they when they how they why they what they and find any number of missing polar bears and heuristics on their T shirts.So if the ice is a melting quickly and there be an increase in them there ice realities,and the Satellites aren’t up there in astronomy and astrology land,and one hasn’t gone up ,say in the last two days.Because can you prove there was an attempt to get one into astrology and astronomy land!? Then 10,000 buggers have been floating in of and around the Artic and Antartic!? Must of went down there on the Japanese whaling fleet when no-one was looking!? Seriously it is North to Alaska, scientists and commercial interests.All I need now is The Yowie spokespersons of the Antartica holes and lakes Pty.Ltd. speaking on behalf of Nazis and long tall Norwegians with an extra finger.And the dogs they keep in their kennels Alsatians!? Haven’t the Global Warmers repeated themselves often too!?So who are the agreed upon by all scientists who will breathe the last word into accepting its a dinky or die problem!?

  2. Martin
    February 26th, 2009 at 22:46 | #2

    Philip,

    that was pretty much unintelligible

  3. Jill Rush
    February 26th, 2009 at 23:24 | #3

    Martin , you are too kind.

    As for recycling rubbish in the print media, I was told by a friend yesterday that Janet Albrechtsen had a new idea in her column. But I missed it because the ideas are repeated again and again in the same turgid prose. Andrew Bolt is anothr who recycles ideas regularly. It is because there are those journalists who are not there for originality but for familiarity for those people looking to contantly validate their wolrd view.

  4. SJ
    February 26th, 2009 at 23:48 | #4

    Martin, Jill, I think phil actually made a joke there. I can’t tell whether it was intentional or not, but still, he deserves a high five.

  5. February 27th, 2009 at 00:15 | #5

    tl;dr. Mentions Nazis so forget it.

  6. February 27th, 2009 at 06:56 | #6

    I think just as people like Will endlessly repeat false claims it is important to endlessly show that they are false. Otherwise the false claim takes on a life of their own and those on the boundary of discussions start to attach credibility to them.

    I agree it is tedious job.

    With respect to Will it is easy to point out the specific falsehoods.

    For example his claim that the UN’s WMO has said that there has been no warming for the past ten years is false. This is easily refuted by referring to the WMO itself. Quote from WMO:

    “What is clear is that globally, 1998 was the warmest year ever recorded and eight of the ten other top annual mean temperatures have occurred during the last decade. The upturn has likely been responsible for melting ice sheets in both polar regions. Mountain glaciers around the world have been on the wane as well. A rise in global mean sea level of between 0.09 and 0.88 metres by 2100 has been projected, mainly due to the thermal expansion of sea water and loss of mass from ice caps and glaciers”.

    The last three sentences here also refute the other major falsehood in the Will article that there has been no change in polar icecaps.

    My impression too in the discursive Will article is just a fair bit of careless journalism that I assume carries over into other things he writes. It is almost as if he doesn’t care what he writes as long as he has his sensation-seeking rant.

  7. philip travers
    February 27th, 2009 at 10:27 | #7

    I played my hand!I am neither gambler or Tarot Card reader…And I cannot understand how a reality of measuring that is taking as an input determining these analyses can be so carefully overlooked,and, only someone like DavidIcke.com on his Monday this week site publish something so detrimental too all the confident scientific assertions.Unintelligible it may have been,but,at least one reference there can discard ,say, thousands of scientific evidences.Whose joke is it really,that I created some nervous humour.What else do these scientists get up to!?Create unsolvable crimes!?Act parts in Al Quada operations!Produce the canned laughter ,wherever high officials crack jokes!?

  8. gerard
  9. Ender
    February 27th, 2009 at 14:14 | #9

    Jill Rush – “Andrew Bolt is anothr who recycles ideas regularly. It is because there are those journalists who are not there for originality but for familiarity for those people looking to contantly validate their wolrd view.”

    Do you think that he will EVER stop saying “Its cold today so global warming is wrong”?

  10. Martin (not the other Martin)
    February 27th, 2009 at 16:35 | #10

    David Icke believes that the Queen is a giant lizard in disguise.

  11. nanks
    February 27th, 2009 at 16:38 | #11

    “David Icke believes that the Queen is a giant lizard in disguise.”

    What is she disguised as?

  12. Stephen L
    February 27th, 2009 at 17:44 | #12

    Nanks, I’m still struggling for air after that one.

    According to Wikipeida, Icke also thinks that Kris Kristopherson is part of a global conspiracy of reptiles to control the planet. If the reptiles can come up with songs as good as “Me and Bobby McGee” I’m happy to let them run the place.

  13. Jill Rush
    February 27th, 2009 at 21:55 | #13

    Ender. I don’t think so. Bolt has locked his mind.

    The quotes used by George Wills are A) hard to verify, B) non specific, C) irrelevant but will no doubt appeal to some readers who will see him as erudite and clever because of them.

    The implication in the article is that because some unspecified people in the mid 1970s erroneously said that there was an impending ice age, that it couldn’t be possible that the globe is warming now. The same logic says that because some people once believed that the world was flat those that believe it to be somewhat spherical now are also wrong. A totally spurious argument.

    Perhaps I was too young at the time but I don’t recall that the ice age was ever a real concern to anyone.

    I can’t comment on Will’s repetition of ideas since he is a unknown writer to me but fancy that it is based on the sales notion that if you repeat something often enough you will convince a certain proportion of the population to your viewpoint.

  14. observa
    February 27th, 2009 at 22:00 | #14

    Don’t know about Will, etc but I did find this an interesting background piece on the history of global warming- http://www.kusi.com/weather/colemanscorner/38574742.html
    From its inception, it’s hard to deny that there isn’t a deal of politics involved in the science and the gaining of research funding, just as you’d expect a similar outcome from those who perceive they have something to lose from the rise and rise of AGW theory. Definitely glass houses and stones all round re respective motivations for me, after reading that background piece.

    As you know, observa, I discourage you posting this kind of link, but, after reflection, I thought I would post it, with the observation that I thought you were smart enough not to be taken in by such delusionist conspiracy theorising. You are aware, I suppose, that your “authority” is a former TV weathercaster who lacks any qualifications in meteorology and that his “facts” are the usual recycled delusionist talking points, combined with a few new libels of his own invention. An interesting aside is that Fred Singer (someone who makes this lowlife look like a paragon of virtue) managed, during Revelle’s final illness, to bully or bamboozle him into signing off on a piece that cast doubt on GW, with the result that the villain in this conspiracy theory is a hero in some other delusionist accounts. JQ

  15. observa
    March 2nd, 2009 at 23:39 | #15

    John, it was quite clear to me reading the article where Coleman’s sympathies lie, but nevertheless I found it an interesting background piece on the history of AGW. As such I can accept it may have a certain flavour or bias to it(and feel free anyone to demolish any of the historical facts Coleman presents here), but there’s no doubt reading between the lines he demolishes the notion that AGW science contains only the pure search for truth, rather than being intermingled with a deal of left/green politicking and the perpetual graft for funding. That won’t change the scientific truth in the long run, but it makes we agnostics discount the current line from AGW fans that only they are pure of mind and endeavour in such matters.

    I should clarify my agnosticism. Firstly there is the challenge as to whether the globe is warming unusually and if so why. Simply put the thermometer and subsequent measuring tools have a very limited life in the big scheme of things and to delve back beyond them for a proxy temperature gauge is fraught with much less certainty, and if the our measuring instruments are infinitesimal in time scale, then the science of climatology even more so. Then there is the breathtaking breadth of the science for any mere mortal, as we are finding almost perpetually. Get your head around one new factoid and two or three more are knocking at the door. This is all repeated with the next leap of deductive science and computer modelling that it’s CO2 doing all the forcing. Then from there you immediately have to leap to the conclusion that only cap and trade can save the planet and mankind.

    I like to think that even if I was a total AGW theory convert, I’d still have been deeply skeptical about that last leap of faith even prior to recent developments with the GFC. Perhaps I’m really kidding myself about that bit because I’ve been more concened for some time with a broader view of the environment including biodiversity and the way in which fossil fuels allow us to turn that to our needs and wants at a frenetic pace. Clearly that meant upping the private cost to better reflect social cost and to figure out how to give our natural environment true countervailing market power to prevent that destruction, nay even push back and allow its re-creation. I suppose as a market man it never occurred to me to consider quantity controls like cap and trade. It all sounded a bit like the war on drugs to me, but now with the obvious raging all about us, anyone who seriously expects me to believe emissions trading and its associated derivatives creation is the way to go, must be on drugs, no matter what that AGW science outcome. As for things like knocking over more environment to plant more corn for ethanol or palm oil for diesel, what can I say Earth Mother? This CO2 stuff they’re all inhaling must have permanent mind altering effects on some of your disciples.

  16. observa
    March 3rd, 2009 at 01:41 | #16

    If you really want to put AGW fans to the test, do what I do occasionally and ask them to consider a world where the only source of revenue is from carbon taxing (ie the maxm theoretical price effect for any given level of revenue) It really sets the hares running but inevitably they conclude it would be far too drastic for most tastes. The irony that cap and trade with the drastic reduction targets being mooted could produce such taxing on top of the existing, always seems to elude them.

    No better example as I recall than older Sis’s birthday party in the runup to the last election but let me set the scene. Lefty sis,(the best conservative families have their black sheep) with two adult sons, remarried to homeopathic type and she a public servant making the community more aware somewhere on taxpayer funds, etc. Lives among the bushfire fuel in the Adelaide Hills which might be an apt description of like neighbour invitees (I know I shouldn’t have)and younger son is a chippie off the old hippie(a creative culinary type) while eldest son and yours truly’s protege, is the bane of earth mother’s life because he is engaged in sordid commercial pursuits(hehe Sis) mortgaged and married with 2 kids and one dutiful extra for the Treasurer. Anyway the kids are snoozing and the adults quietly boozing.

    I say adults, but a better collection of 70s time travellers and psychedelia you’ll never get and naturally they’re all nervous about whether the Dark Lord will finally get his comeuppance and light and gaiety descend upon Middle Earth again, yada, yada. The conversation turns to Kyoto and naturally capping those dark satanic mills is the only true way for all thinking people when I chip in with- ‘Well there is another way…?’ exchanging knowing glances with eldest nephew who is wondering if uncle is biting off more than he can chew here, albeit he knows where I’m about to come from, from past discourses.

    I’ve got complete silence and the floor as I drop the line about simply relying on total taxation of carbon. Well that sets the hairbrains running and one particular earthmother who thinks it’s a fabulous idea and I just sit back and feed her the odd bit of ammo like when she’s being challenged on no income tax and the poor will pay more, that it would slug the dishwasher, swimming pool, jet set more, yada, yada. They all like that immediately. Now she’s a real attention seeker and really getting wound up and we’re all previously aware she and contemplative hubby are heading off around Oz in the Winnebago or Kombi with the Mercedes sign on the front or whatever, in a few weeks when he retires. She’s rattling on enthusiastically with a new vision, occasionally being challenged about how much would things cost and I chip in with, well we might be paying $3 or $5 a litre for petrol and have to pay our power and gas bills weekly, but then there’s no GST, etc and we’d all get our gross wages in our hand. With that she stops dead and looks like a State Labor Treasurer who’s just seen the latest revenue figures and gasps- ‘Oh well of course it’s a great idea but I wouldn’t want it introduced before we’ve gone on our trip!’ I flash a look at the nephew and dive for the esky asking if anyone needs a top up and the nephew is right behind as we nearly wet ourselves. That’s what I’ve discovered is essentially the grass roots appeal of cap and trade.

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