Friday, December 15, 2006

Viral Bits

Kate (smalldeadanimals) has a post up about the media and blog buzz over Liberal Leader St├ęphane 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.


Anonymous said...

How about this tid-bit of viral mis-information. All scientists who question the theory of anthropogenic causes for global warming have given up their scientific objectivity by accepting "bribes" from rich oil companies. If that were to be accepted as truth, where is the corollary that should say that scientists paid from government sources, and that includes universities, are equally prone to that failure of ethical standards. I personally believe they are even more prone to toe the line dictated by politically correct millieu in which they work.

J West said...

The carbon units (us) who infest this ball in space are transitory and therefore, matters concerning our activities shouldn't be taken too seriously.

We are lucky to have appeared here at all.

We live as we do and sometimes make a mess of things, but it is our mess and we must simply live with it. It's hard enough to get humans to take their dishes from the coffee table to the sink, let alone helping to clean up the environment.

Nothing remains the same no matter how hard liberal elements try to make it so. Our greatest attribute so far has been, that we can adapt to changing situations even without specific governance to guide us. Just like cockroaches.

With the atheism of the left dominating the West, we might conclude that we are not really very important since there is nothing divine about our creation (or evolution) after all.

We should all shut up ... live and let live and continue adapting to changing climate and conditions as best we can.

I think the climate change will do nothing to us that is worse than what we already do to each other.

When we are gone, we won't be missed. so lighten up and live in your time with some gratitude for the opportunity.

If the world eventually shrugs most or all of us off, there may be a new start for a modified human species that might prove to me more interesting, but equally unimportant in the future.

No doubt our off-world observers are endlessly amused.

FYI - Kate rules!

arcolaura said...

Bob - Tim Patterson is one of those scientists working for a university and paid from government sources. He isn't forced to toe a line - he himself says that, working at a university, "I can say whatever I want."

What intrigues me is this: people who seem to have no special motivation, no outside influence acting on them, nevertheless keep going out of their way to spread misinformation. Why?

arcolaura said...

It's hard enough to get humans to take their dishes from the coffee table to the sink, let alone helping to clean up the environment.

Actually, Duke, in my experience, the people with the greatest concern and drive to clean up the environment often have the messiest houses. It's a matter of where your focus is: taking care of yourself and offering a pleasant surrounding to those who visit you (nothing wrong with that); or trying to live in right relationship with the wider world, even if it means accepting a little lower standards for your immediate surroundings.

We should all shut up...

Yes, especially when we're just repeating bits of misinformation - but we don't. Why is that?

arcolaura said...

FYI - Kate rules!


Some folks don't want to be free.

arcolaura said...

Blew off some steam and got my driveway shoveled. The whole thing, right down to the pavement. Fingers are a little wobbly on the keys now, but the accomplishment feels good.

As I shoved snow, I was thinking about the discussion here, and how it didn't feel right. Then I got to thinking about Philippians 4:8 and this morning's sermon. To paraphrase for the season:

Whatever is hopeful,
whatever is peaceful,
whatever is joyful,
whatever is lovely,
I will think of these things.

God help me to blog on these things, too!

Bob, Duke - thanks for stopping by.

Tim Hodgens said...


I came to your blog through Great post. One additional thought about:

"What intrigues me is this: people who seem to have no special motivation, no outside influence acting on them, nevertheless keep going out of their way to spread misinformation. Why?"

I know nothing about the man you referenced, Tim Patterson, but I have known people who have a habitual way of taking the opposite position no matter what the position. That's their identity. They thrive on it. If that is the situation here, it is not about the truth but about the perpetuation of his identity.

Just a thought.

BTW, I made reference to your posting in one of my posts today (12/17/06) about "elevator pitches and global warming."


arcolaura said...

Thanks, Tim. Interesting thought about people being motivated by contrariness. I have some of that tendency myself, so I can understand it. But would I knowingly lead people astray, just to boost my own identity? I hope not!

Thanks for the plug on your blog, and I'm glad to return the favour. Tim has a good post about what keeps us from talking about the weather - check it out! I'm insomniac blogging right now, so I'll have to read it again once I've had some sleep.

Tim Hodgens said...


Thanks for the response. We both needed some sleep, and I "dressed up" my post a bit this morning. Those little changes made a difference.

I would love to hear your thoughts.


Saskboy said...

BobWood, if your point is true, and neither "scientific" group can be trusted, then it's up to the individual person to determine who is more trustworthy and thorough. I can't find a way to justify pollution as being good for humans in the long term, there's just no way to do it. Go ahead if you can show me.

The reason bad ideas go viral, is because people like to believe what supports the status quo that you know is bad. If you smoke and hear that 2nd hand smoke isn't killing your kids, then you might use that to further your denial. With many prior industries shown to be killing people as with modern pollution industries, there's always denial at first about how bad they are for people and the world. Cigarettes are just the most obvious example to me.

Tim Hodgens said...


Thanks for your response on my blog. I'll respond later.

Re: Contrariness. Maybe we'd be all better off if there was a bit more of that in people across the board.

Here's how I look at it. We all have the potential to be contrary, or agreeable, or didactic, or to play the student or the teacher. In fact all those possibilities and more are in potential within each of us.

For overall development we should be able to experiment with each of those positions for awhile. Then we find that by doing that others will react in other ways which are either complimentary or antagonistic towards what we are doing. Through trial and error we settle eventually on a set of a few preferred "positions" which are "supported" by the actions of others.

Now with that man you were talking about, (and again I have no knowledge of him and am just generalizing) if he assumes a position of contrariness almost as if "no matter what," then, from an interpersonal point of view, he is exuding hostility towards others.

Hostility in this context being defined as how much energy a person is willing to put into actions and behaviors to maintain others in an interpersonal position which is favorable to the maintenance of their favored interpersonal position.

I know that's a mouthful but it's important.

If you want to pursue that and want to do some studying, look at Timothy Leary's earlier psychological work on an interpersonal theory of neurosis. By earlier, I mean before he went "off" to other chemically induced frontiers.