This Week in Propaganda and Pseudoscience (May 5 Edition)

I still believe in the law of gravity. Do you?

From grist.org, a program that lets you generate your own "Heartland Billboard"!

This was a good week for prime examples of propaganda and pseudoscience. Let’s get started.

49 Cherry-Picked Questionable Authorities Can’t Be Wrong

There was some recent buzz about “49 authorities” who sent a letter [1] to NASA’s chief and asked the agency to stop promoting the idea of human-induced climate change. A blog, “Scholars and Rogues,” noted a number of serious instances of pseudoscience, mis-information, and logical fallacies in the letter [2]. “Scholars and Rogues” is a blog site that has a number of contributors; this particular article was contributed by Brian Angliss, a working electrical engineer (BSEE and MSEE) and the science editor and climate/energy writer for the blog. What makes him credible here is that he is careful to cite multiple examples of peer-reviewed, published scientific research to back up his arguments, and he demonstrates a clear mastery of the fundamentals of argument analysis (ala [4]) and a recognition of the use of logical fallacies to distract the reader of the “49 authorities” letter from an otherwise weak argument.

Here are a few good examples (you should read the letter and the criticism for a more complete picture):

  1. The authors of the letter cited “hundreds” [1] of climate scientists who disagree with the conclusion that climate change is human-induced. An investigation reveals that this statement is based solely on information from Senator James Inhofe’s (R-OK) own 2008 minority report (Inhofe is a well-documented and proud climate change denier). Of the 700 scientists on the list provided by Inhofe, only 70 of 700 are practicing climate scientists; 680 of them have no publication record on climate science. And, in a funny twist, about 28 of 700 actually have been convinced by the scientific evidence of the reality of human-induced climate change. Whoops.
  2. The letter points to “tens of thousands” [1] of other scientists who disagree with the conclusion that climate change is human-induced. That sounds impressive, until you breakdown the numbers (which themselves come from the Oregon Institute for Science and Medicine, a non-profit private organization that denies the existence of human-induced climate change). First, the list is compiled using the loosest possible definition of “scientist” – it doesn’t even constrain itself to practicing scientists, just to anyone with a Bachelor of Science degree. By that definition, US institutions have produced over 10 million “scientists” since 1970; the 31000 “scientists” on the OISM’s list represents only 0.3% of all “scientists” produced since 1970. Take a room full of people, and you’re guaranteed to find that at least 0.3% of them disagree with the other 99.7% of people in the room (on any issue, for any reason, right or not).

It goes on. Have a look. The above is a great example of  “equivocation,” a key logical fallacy. The authors rely on the vague term “scientist,” which means something very different to the public than it means to the scientific community, to fool the reader into thinking they have found some very impressive numbers. They rely on vagaries and mis-direction to try to skirt your critical thinking defenses and trick you into agreeing with them.

In life, no “white knight” is going to save you from propaganda and mis-information. You have to learn to recognize good and weak arguments and think for yourself.

How would you have spotted the weaknesses in the “49 experts” letter? First, ask what are the vague terms. Believe it or not, “scientist” is a vague term unless it’s qualified (“practicing scientist,” “publishing scientist,” “actively publishing climate scientist” – these are all the minimum required qualifications needed into order to clarify the meaning of the vague term “scientist”).  Second, check their reasons. When they cite figures on the numbers of “scientists” that agree or disagree with a position, then it’s incumbent upon you to ask questions like:

  1. Where did they get these numbers? Are they published? Are they peer reviewed? A quick check (which the blog above has done for us) reveals that the sources are neither published (in a respectable journal) or peer-reviewed. For a list of primary, peer-reviewed and published sources that help to understand the real number of climate scientists that have been convinced by the scientific evidence, see Naomi Oreskes’s essay in the journal “Science” [3].

Serial Killers Sleep, Poop, Eat, and Believe in Climate Change

Heartland Institute Propaganda

The heartland Institute paid for billboards intended to use the principles of propaganda to scare you into denying the evidence for climate change.

This one goes under the “propaganda” header. The Heartland Institute, a non-profit private thinktank that originally partnered with the tobacco industry in the 1980s to fight medical research pointing to the dangers of tobacco, posted billboards this week that sought to terrify readers into being against the evidence for climate change. I’ve placed an example of this billboard to the left.

Propaganda is described at length (with examples) on our SMU course page for PHY/CFB 3333 [5].  In short, propaganda is any message that is delivered with the intent to “alter public perceptions and/or induce action” [5]. Everybody uses propaganda, from personal workplace politics to national politics. The key is to recognize that what is being used is propaganda. As Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi father of modern propaganda, noted, “Propaganda becomes ineffective the moment we are aware of it.”

So let’s make you aware of it. The above billboard is propaganda. It uses emotion – fear, in this case – to spur you to disagree with the scientific fact of global warming. It uses a convicted serial murderer – Ted Kaczynski – to do this. Basically, it implies that if you agree with the fact of global warming, you are no better than a serial murderer. You are then directed to the Heartland Institute’s website.

In order to see that this is propaganda, you need to understand that it is built on a logical fallacy: “Appeal to Questionable Authority” and an implicit “Ad Hominem Attack.” The Ad Hominem attack is on you; basically, if you believe in the fact of global warming, you are a serial murderer. The appeal is the use of Kaczynski’s photograph, implicitly linking acceptance of the fact of global warming with being a crazed genius murderer. The intent is purely to scare you, forcing your rational mind to be subsumed by your irrational mind. To deconstruct the propaganda, you should always change the words in the sign to something that is easier to understand and see if the argument still works. For example, imagine instead the sign read, “I still go to the bathroom. Do you?” The implication here is, “Ted Kaczynski poops. Ted Kaczynski is a crazed serial murderer. Only crazed serial murderers poop. You don’t want to be a crazed serial murderer, do you?” Of course that’s ridiculous; pooping has nothing whatsoever to do with being a crazed serial murdered. Neither does acceptance of a fact, like the fact that the Earth’s average temperature has shot up exponentially for the last 150 years.

Once you recognize and then deconstruct the propaganda (I find that using absurdity helps to take away the power of propaganda), then you find this billboard is a toothless fallacy. You are not weak-minded. Don’t let propagandists like the Heartland Institute try to treat you like a weak-minded person.

 

[1] http://sppiblog.org/news/former-nasa-scientists-astronauts-admonish-agency-on-climate-change-position

[2] http://www.scholarsandrogues.com/2012/04/25/errors-shortcomings-void-nasa-climate-letter/

[3] Oreskes, Naomi. “Beyond the Ivory Tower, The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change (including corrections)”Science.  2005.

[4] Browne, M and Keeley, S. “Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (10th Edition).” ISBN-10: 0205111165. ISBN-13: 978-0205111169. Amazon URL: http://www.amazon.com/Asking-Right-Questions-Critical-Thinking/dp/0205111165/ref=dp_ob_title_bk

[5] http://www.physics.smu.edu/pseudo/Propaganda/

About steve

I am a husband, son, and an Assistant Professor of Physics at Southern Methodist University. Physics may be my favorite thing to do, but I like to do a little bit of everything: writing, running, biking, hiking, drumming, gardening, carpentry, computer programming, painting, drawing, eating and sleeping. I earned a Ph.D. in Physics in 2004 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I teach courses in physics and the scientific method at SMU, and I love to spend time with my family.

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