Tom Harris – hypocritical peddler of deceitful climate change editorials (corrected)

Eight related commentaries written by Tom Harris of the International Climate Science Coalition since mid-December are packed them with distortions, errors, hypocrisy, and more.

Tom Harris, Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC)

Tom Harris, Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC)

For the other posts in this series, click here.

[Update 2/21/2014: A word in one of Tom’s commentaries was confused by the author – “censure” was confused for “censor.” Since the entire section was based on this error, it has been struck from the post]

Starting in the middle of December, 2014 and continuing through February, 2015, Tom Harris, Executive Director of the industrial climate disruptionA denying International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC), wrote at least eight nearly identical commentaries. They were published mostly in small local newspapers and websites around the United States, Canada, and South Africa. The stated purpose of the commentaries was to call for scholars and philosophers to engage in the public argument over climate disruption (aka global warming or climate change), and Harris wrote that “philosophers and other intellectuals have an ethical obligation to speak out loudly when they see fundamental errors in thinking6.” As S&R hosts an occasional feature called “Climate Illogic,” we accepted Harris’ invitation and looked through his own commentaries for illogical arguments as well as other issues of concern.
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Words Matter: a “denier” is someone who denies, nothing more or less

CATEGORY: WordsMatterThe English language can be confusing, absurd, and infuriating all at the same time. Words Matter is a new occasional feature where S&R authors deconstruct how English words, phrases, and colloquialisms are used and misused.

deny
to refuse to accept the existence, truth, or validity of (Source)
denier
one who denies [deniers of the truth] (Source)

As part of my climate and environmental reporting, I come across the term “denier” all the time, as in “climate denier,” “climate change denier,” “global warming denier,” and “industrial climate disruption denier.” And there are a lot of people identified as deniers who claim that the term is an attempt to place them on the same moral level as those individuals who claim that the Holocaust didn’t occur, aka Holocaust deniers. While there are certainly some who intentionally make that implication, the implication has nothing to do with the word “denier” itself. “Denier” means nothing more than a person who refuses to accept the existence, truth, or validity of something.

The definition of a denier is completely neutral. The definition doesn’t include any guidance about the values, ethics, morals, psychology, beliefs, or experiences of anyone who qualifies as a denier, only that the person is denying something. The definition also doesn’t define whether the thing being denied actually exists, is true, or has validity, only that it’s existence, truth, or validity is being denied. What’s being denied can be literally anything – evolution, that Han shot first, the existence of God, vaccine safety, that Picard was the best Star Trek captain, HIV as the cause of AIDS, that Shakespeare authored his plays, or even 2 + 2 = 4.

Since the definition of “denier” offers no guidance as to motivations or moral equivalencies, any good or bad properties associated with the term are necessarily a function of the term’s context, not of the term itself. In the context of a Sunday church service at a fundamentalist Christian church, someone being an evolution denier is unimportant. But change the context to a high school biology classroom and suddenly that denial may matter greatly. Similarly, a vaccine safety denier may well be harmless if he or she refuses to get the annual flu vaccine, but put that same denier in the context of child immunizations and public health ramifications of a pertussis outbreak and his or her denial may well be a serious concern.

But even in the case of vaccine safety deniers, their denial doesn’t mean they are necessarily immoral. They may simply be so afraid of vaccine side effects that their usual rationality is clouded by their own biases. Or they may not have the mathematical skill to realize that they’re actually making their children (and others) less safe by refusing to vaccinate. Their denial doesn’t mean that they’re stupid, either – everyone’s rationality is occasionally clouded by biases, emotions, and/or ignorance. It’s when someone knows that vaccines are safe and yet claims they aren’t for some other reason that vaccine safety denial becomes immoral. Of course, we tend to use different terms for these kinds of people – terms like “liars.”

It’s true that sometimes cultural context can mean that value-neutral terms can develop values that are partially independent of the term itself. A good example of this is the difference between “ethics” and “morals.” In philosophy they mean the same thing, but in the United State we tend to use “ethics” when we’re talking about professional behavior and “morals” when we’re talking about personal behavior. It’s possible that “denier” did originally have the cultural context of morally repugnant Holocaust denial, but even if that was the case years ago, it’s not the case any more.

Google is an occasionally convenient way to gauge the culture of the United States – search for something and the things that people are most interested in show up in the first few pages of results. When I did a search strictly on the word “deniers” earlier this week (1/14/2013), I found the following:

  • Links to definitions of “denier” were ranked #1, #6, and #17.
  • The Wikipedia disambiguation page was ranked #2.
  • A reference to the French denier coin came in at #27 and a reference to the denier as a unit of fiber measurement came in at #33.
  • The first Holocaust denial link was ranked #56, on page 6 of the results.
  • The first mention of Holocaust denial was in the “Searches related to deniers” options at the bottom of first page. The alternate search terms were “deniers definition,” “evolution deniers,” “climate change deniers,” “climate deniers,” “aids deniers,” “famous Holocaust deniers,” “Holocaust deniers claims,” and “Jewish Holocaust deniers.”

Every other link up to #56 was to a website or blog post or news article related to the denial of industrial climate disruption. It’s probably fair to say at this point that calling someone a “denier” is less likely to invoke Holocaust denial than it is to invoke climate disruption denial.

So why do people who deny one thing or another generally dislike being labeled as “deniers?” It’s probably not because of the spurious connection to Holocaust denial. Instead, people who take umbrage at the term do so because no-one likes being labeled negatively. We psychologically prefer to view ourselves in positive terms than in negative ones, and the term “denier” is a strongly negative term.

Furthermore, in most cases the term “denier” simply and accurately describes what the people so labeled are doing – they’re denying some aspect of objective reality. Vaccine safety deniers deny the reality that vaccines have repeatedly been demonstrated to be safe and that the risks of vaccination are much lower than the risks of going unvaccinated. HIV/AIDS deniers deny the reality that HIV causes AIDS. Evolution deniers deny the reality that species evolve and that God is not a necessary condition for the existence of humanity.

In my opinion, however, there is another aspect to the complaints about the word “denier,” one that goes to the heart of why so many industrial climate disruption deniers claim that “denier” is meant to imply Holocaust denial. I think that some deniers dislike that such a simple, value-neutral word as “denier” can be used to accurately describe them and would prefer that some other term be used instead (we’ll cover euphemisms and misnomers like “climate realist” and “climate change skeptic” another time).

There are over a dozen synonyms for the verb “deny.” Converting them from the verb form to a noun that describes the person doing the action generates the following list of alternate terms that could be used in place of “denier:”

contradictor, disaffirmer, disallower, disavower, disclaimer, disconfirmer, disowner, gainsayer, negator, negativer, refuter, rejecter, or repudiator.

With the possible exception of “rejecter,” however, each of the terms is more confusing than “denier.” How many people would know what you meant if you wrote “Holocaust gainsayer” or “HIV/AIDS disavower” or “industrial climate disruption disconfirmer?” Most people would become confused by the unknown word, lose track of the point you were trying to make, and then give up and move on.

The word “denier” is value neutral and it says nothing about the motivations or ethics of a person who is described as such. It’s only through context that “denier” can be given a moral or ethical dimension. While it’s possible that it was once culturally tied to Holocaust denial, that cultural connection is minimal now, and it probably has been ever since “denier” became so firmly attached to climate change/global warming/industrial climate disruption. Nowadays, “denier” merely means someone who rejects the existence, truth, or validity of something. Any other implications are strictly in the minds of the person calling someone a denier, and in the mind of the person being called one.

Words matter – use them carefully.

Nota Bene #123: Behold the Chickenosaurus

“There ought to be limits to freedom.” Who said it? Continue reading

Rand and objectivism: Are rationality and consistency the hallmarks of good philosophy?

by Matthew Record

“I think a major reason why intellectuals tend to move towards collectivism is that the collectivist answer is a simple one. If there’s something wrong, pass a law and do something about it.” — Milton Friedman

Objectivism is the philosophy developed and espoused over time by Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and fleshed out through a series of newsletters and lectures in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.Rand, Leonard Peikoff and others in her braintrust offer a tantalizingly simple modality for understanding political systems, sociology and indeed, the epistemological nature of mankind’s mind. Quietly but with a presence that announces itself more and more forcefully each year, we are living the heyday of Rand’s intellectual influence. Objectivism has come to the fore throughout the conservative movement since the ’80s in general and through the recent rise of Libertarianism as a political economic force, in particular.  Continue reading

On Richard Pryor: It was something he said

Richard PryorThe great medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer created timeless characters in his Canterbury Tales; archetypal personalities such as the Wife of Bath and the Miller endure to this day. Through them Chaucer could readily celebrate, criticize and satirize different aspects of the society of his time. Additionally, Chaucer, as a public servant and man of the people, preserved a vernacular that may otherwise have been lost.

The late Richard Pryor, often hailed as the greatest comic to ever take the stage, is the American Chaucer. A master storyteller in the grand tradition of West African griots, fired by passion and pain, possessed of keen insight, he was also a brilliant impersonator with amazing range, an intuitive actor who never got his due, a social critic, a writer, a folklorist, a philosopher, and, most importantly, one funny motherfucker… Continue reading

The grace, courage and humanity of Terry Pratchett

Ed. Note: This piece originally appeared in January of 2011. RIP Terry. You’ll be missed.
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“I would like to die peacefully with Thomas Tallis on my iPod before the disease takes me over and I hope that will not be for quite some time to come, because if I knew that I could die at any time I wanted, then suddenly every day would be as ­precious as a million pounds. If I knew that I could die, I would live. My life, my death, my choice.”

The words are Pratchett’s coming at the end of his Richard Dimbleby lecture, Shaking Hands With Death, and spoken, with tremendous compassion and composure, by his good friend Tony Robinson. Continue reading

Farewell, Day 2

by Terry Hargrove

Something less than 228 hours to go.

I found a gypsy. That is, I think she was a gypsy, although she maintained she was Lithuanian. I offered to escort her to the train tracks, which was obviously a Lithuanian idiom I didn’t know existed, because it meant something altogether different than the sum of its parts. We made a quick exchange of funds, and I ran, her Eastern European “conductor” right behind me.

For those of you who think I’m making light of a situation I consider as serious as any I have faced, let me point out that this very morning, I read an obituary of some poor individual who died yesterday. He was 55. He seemed fine yesterday, but now he’s dead. I felt fine yesterday, but today I woke up with a cold, that I am sure will turn to pneumonia and put me in the ground in just a few days. Continue reading

The god of small change

A former professor of mine, Paul Schoemaker, co-wrote a book on decision making. In it he tells a story about calling a friend in Australia. The friend unloaded on him, “My job sucks. My marriage sucks. My life sucks.”

He sounded so despondent that Paul called him back a few days later. To his surprise, his friend was downright cheery.  When Paul reminded him of his mood the previous week, the friend said, “Oh yeah. Last week was bad, but then I bought the Harley.”  Schoemaker’s point was that we all try to compartmentalize decisions, but that’s not the way our brains work. One thing flows into another.

When one thing sucks, everything sucks. And when one thing is great, life is great.

But I think there’s another point to that story. Small changes can have big effects. Continue reading

Questioning authenticity

by Ann Ivins

“An authentic life.”

For some reason, this phrase, neither new nor newly trendy, has been popping up more and more in reading, conversations, casual messages and in-depth debates in my field of awareness lately. For some reason, although I often care very deeply about the people involved in the discussion, the words themselves leave me cold – or perhaps that’s too harsh. Less than cold, then, but also less than moved. I don’t roll my eyes, as at “That’s not fair.” I don’t despise the speaker. I don’t even mind that it’s a cliché whose meaning is entirely dependent upon its user; most human experience fits into well-worn phrases when viewed from the outside. And I understand, once the explanations begin, what different people mean by it: searching for your true work, maybe, or living closer to the land, or connecting more with people than with things. I simply don’t like the descriptor itself nor the way it tends to be used.

What bothers me, I think, is this: the implication that life itself can be inauthentic. Continue reading

Nota Bene #115: RIP No. 32

“If you’re really pro-life, do me a favor—don’t lock arms and block medical clinics. If you’re so pro-life, lock arms and block cemeteries.” Who said it? Continue reading

Freedom and Religion part 2

by Terry Hargrove

All day long, I waited for doom to fall upon my brother’s head. He had skipped church that morning, hooked up with his friend Eastep, and spent his collection plate money at Talley’s Market, so if ever anybody deserved a Divine Smite, it was Glenn. But that Smite, never Smote. At 5:45pm, we left our house and began the long walk to choir practice and Sunday evening services. At 5:51, Eastep appeared beside us, and he and Glenn turned left on Water Street, leaving me to go to choir practice and evening services alone.

After two eternal hours in church, I began planning my sojourn to Talley’s market when church next beckoned on Wednesday night. In my mind, I was explaining all this to God, how I was going to be His emissary to the Tallyites, and by my example, bring the lost sheep back to the fold. And if that holy work took 8-10 years, I was willing to make the sacrifice. Continue reading

Review: Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife

For a book about nothing, Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea sure is something. 

“The clashes over zero were the battles that shook the foundations of philosophy, of science, of mathematics, and of religion,” says Seife, who then goes on to explore those conflicts. In just under 250 pages, he covers a lot of ground.

While philosophy and math might seem like esoteric stuff custom-built for brainy left-brain people, Seife writes in a reader-friendly style that makes complex ideas relatable to a general audience without dumbing down the ideas or speaking down to the readers. About two-thirds of the way through the book, Seife gets into reflective geometry, and at that point he gets in a little too deep, but otherwise, Seife manages to avoid bogging down in the heavy-duty ideas.

Considering that zero may be the heaviest of all heavy-duty ideas, that says a lot. Continue reading

Why we should scratch Peter Gabriel's back

Scratch My BackThe O2 squats on the banks of the Thames on the Greenwich peninsula in south east London. Within it is the 23,000 seater O2 Arena. On 28 March it was not full.

It should have been.

“It has become normal to break apart albums and perform individual songs. Tonight we are going to reverse that.” And, with that, Peter Gabriel performed his entire new album, each song in its album order and without pause. Continue reading

What's it Thursday?

by Djerrid

Hi everyone! Sorry for posting two days early last week. Now back to your regularly scheduled program.

ArtSunday: Amalgam

Here follow many of my favorite painters, illustrators and photographers. This comprehensive list
was lovingly compiled—be sure to click on the images or names to see and learn more. Enjoy! ∞

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Dr. Slammy's Law of Social Communication

This came to me just now in an e-mail exchange with our friend John Harvin. So, tell me – am I onto something? Has this already been said?

In any public communication system where access is generally open, noise tends to expand at an exponential rate while the expansion of signal is merely additive.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine why this would occur to me…

Is a GED better than a PhD?

I come from a family background that was conflicted on the question of education. On the one hand, my grandparents (who raised me from the time I was three) realized that whatever hope I was to have of a better life than they’d had hinged on school. As such, there was never a moment in my life, once I was old enough to grasp the concept of what school was, when I didn’t simply assume that I’d go to college.

Growing up, I understood that learning came first. My grandmother taught me to read when I was four, and by the time I entered first grade I was reading on the fourth grade level, at least. My grandfather taught me math, and when I was five I could do fairly complicated problem strings that included long division. If there was homework to do, that came before play, and it was made clear that if my grades ever slipped, I wouldn’t be allowed to play sports at all. If I made an A they were happy. If I made an A- they were rather pointed in wanting to know what had gone wrong. Bs were unacceptable, and if I’d made a C I simply wouldn’t have gone home. Continue reading

Conversion rates in science writing

by Djerrid

Here’s a math word problem that will give you painful flashbacks to the 7th grade:

According to Canada.com, a proton moving at 99.9999991% of the speed of light has the energy of seven mosquitoes.

Also according to that site, three-hundred trillion protons moving at that speed has the energy of a 200 tonne train running at 200 kph.

Using this information, how many mosquitoes would it take to push a one kilogram ball to a speed of one kilometer per hour?

Science reporters for news outlets have an interesting job; some of the smartest people in the world have dedicated a lifetime of work to the most complex phenomena this universe has to offer and these reporters have to distill it down to a few hundred words at an 8th grade reading level. Continue reading

To believe or not to believe—Review: God is an Atheist by N. Nosirrah

God as an atheist is like a novelist who doesn’t believe in novels.

So perhaps it’s fitting that N. Nosirrah’s highly amusing and deeply thoughtful God is an Atheist is a novella. Specifically, it’s “a novella for those who have run out of time.”

“This is a story without plot, characters, structure, or obvious purpose,” Nosirrah writes. “If a thousand monkeys typing endlessly would eventually produce all the great works of literature, then this is their first draft.” Continue reading