Kate (smalldeadanimals) has a post up about the media and blog buzz over Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion's French citizenship. I was intrigued, not by the political topic, but by the illustration of the way bits of news (or not-news) "go viral" in the blogosphere.
This phenomenon has nagged at me for a couple of years now, as I watch little dust devils of commentary swirl up whenever Kate mentions anything to do with climate. I just sneeze and move along, but many people who breathe that stuff in seem totally lacking in immunity to the infectious bits.
Kate quotes Ezra Levant discussing the virus-spreading quality of the Internet as a good thing: whatever is interesting catches on. I would agree - if only the infection caused those infected to pursue their new-caught interest with vigour, openness, and balance. Instead, infection seems to produce a sort of reverse immunity, with greater susceptibility to future infection if newly encountered viral bits resemble the old. Such familiar-looking bits will produce a new round of inflammation and vigorous replication of viral bits from previous infections. Meanwhile the generic rejection response for totally unrecognized foreign bits goes into overdrive, preventing any infection by novel bits that might serve to balance the system.
If people actually responded to something "interesting" by exploring further, finding deeper and wider information that allowed them to view the interesting bit from very different angles, then an infection would be a good thing. It would strengthen and invigorate the mind.
There is, of course, a problem with this viral infection analogy: we associate immunity with health, but a mind that rejects any foreign matter is unhealthy indeed. It is liable to be hurt by all those things that it refuses to know.
Here I can see the value of the viral spread of ideas on the Internet. If there is unhealthy immunity at the level of news outlets (rather than at the level of an individual mind) - if news outlets are rejecting publication of stories that are foreign to established ways of thinking - then the blogosphere provides a new channel for healthy infection.
But what is a healthy infection? Are some of the infections unhealthy? Here I see the power of the viral infection analogy. Mentioning a virus brings to mind several qualities: something harmful; something that relies on encoded information; something that operates invisibly until symptoms suddenly erupt; and something so small as to seem a mere fragment.
A virus does harm by injecting a tiny snippet of misleading information into the workings of a cell. I call it misleading, because it leads the cell astray to serve the purposes of the virus. An infected cell drops its normal activities and instead produces copies of the virus - both its information code and its injection apparatus - until the entire cell self-destructs.
The healthy cell was a marvel of sophisticated harmony, with a host of interacting functions derived from an enormous store of information. Yet the injection of one tiny snippet of new information brought the whole thing to ruin.
Can the whole body of science around anthropogenic global warming be brought to ruin in a similar fashion? Some would like you to think so.
In a recent CFRA Ottawa radio interview, popular climate-fear-soothing geologist Tim Patterson talked about the way science can be totally changed by a single study. Michael Crichton makes the same point in his speeches, and uses the same example: the sudden shift in geological sciences when the idea of plate tectonics became accepted. Crichton and Patterson use this example to belittle the idea of a "scientific consensus" around anthropogenic global warming. They imply that the whole idea of global warming caused by human activity is just as vulnerable as the old idea of fixed continents. They hint that their own contrary voices are on the verge of bringing a major new enlightenment to science.
Their example has great power, and I am sure they know it. Crichton's audience can easily identify with his story about noticing the apparent fit between South American and African coastlines, and about a schoolteacher dismissing his observation. What an apt example to use when you are belittling scientific consensus! It suggests that scientists of the day were ignoring contrary evidence that was obvious even to a casual observer; and thus, it affirms the value of casual observations that seem contrary to a global warming trend.
Crichton and Patterson would like you to think that the scientific consensus about global warming is on the verge of self-destruction, as a healthy infection of new ideas works its way through the scientific community. However, I suspect that their own opinion is somewhat different. I suspect that they are well aware of the strength of the scientific consensus and do not expect it to collapse from within. Instead, they hope to spread enough infection through public opinion outside the scientific community, so that climate change research will be starved of public support, at least to a degree and for a time.
Why do I doubt their sincerity? I have spent some time following up the bits of contrary evidence that these authors and other skeptics present. I have explored the topics they raise by seeking out published research by other authors. I have seen the way the skeptics select examples and omit context. I have learned enough of the scientific background to recognize some of these deceptions immediately, rather than after plowing through reference papers.
Through all of this, I have begun to recognize not only the deceptions, but the techniques behind them. One key technique is to inject deceptive information where it is least likely to be challenged, and most likely to be repeated. For example, both in his radio interview and in a parliamentary hearing, Patterson has talked about the Ordovician period, 450 million years ago, when CO2 levels were much higher and yet there was an ice age. However, in his research papers submitted for publication, he doesn't mention this example. Presumably he doesn't mention it in the friendly discussions he claims to have with other scientists, because he knows he would be laughed out of the room. During the Ordovician, the distribution of land masses was totally different (plate tectonics again), ocean circulation was totally different, and there weren't even any land plants yet. Naturally the relationship between atmospheric composition and global temperature was a bit different back then!
But in the blogosphere, often unnoticed, Patterson's fragment of detail about the Ordovician goes viral, as do numerous other bits of disinformation. And fast-paced blogs like Kate's, where these viral bits propagate, are much more interesting than my tedious, several-days-late rebuttals. Then when the symptoms appear, in the form of public complacency about climate or even outright hostility towards reducing CO2 emissions, some people wonder how it happened.
revisit: Littling Along
3 days ago