Welcome to the Shibbolithic

Guest parody by Brad Keyes

Shibbolithic /ʃɪbəlˈiθik/ n.

: the current geological age, regarded as the first of the Anthropocene epoch and distinguished by the hegemony of unconvincing impostors in the scholarly and scientific academies

Source: ‘Shibbolithic.’ Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2020.


Bad Actors

Bad actors: they exist, they’re real, and what’s worse, they really exist. The climate debate teems with them—well, one of the teams teems with them. They may even turn out to be the keystone species of our age; not for nothing has homo nicholas cagensis been called ’the trilobite of the Shibbolithic.’

You may even have warned your kids about them. You were probably sitting around the campfire, the beam of a single flashlight throwing your facial features into grotesque counter-relief.

But little Timmy couldn’t help pressing the issue: what exactly is a bad actor, pater? Timmy’s always been like that.

Well—you reply, off the top of your head—imagine an Honest Broker broke bad and spoke in a broke or bankrupt manner, morally speaking…

You can stop guessing; allow me to explain the real answer.

If someone wants to play a doctor on TV she has to understand how stethoscopes work, in broad-stroke terms. Nobody expects her to know a pansystolic murmur from a protodiastolic gallop. But if she can’t work out why stethoscope is the odd word out in the set {microscope, telescope, otoscope, stethoscope, periscope}, she’d better hope the script doesn’t ask her to use one.

Hint: one of those words should end in –phone, not –scope.

Happily, today’s pseudo-doctors are pretty good at their jobs. I can’t remember the last medical drama where the heroine tried to see inside a patient’s thorax by sticking the rubber bits in her eyes.

Science, it’s been said, is a bit like medicine. If you don’t know the first thing about how it works, you can’t expect to sell an audience on the idea of you as a practitioner of it. (Knowing the second, third and subsequent things can add depth to your performance—just don’t expect the suburban multiplex crowd to care.)

Yet climate science—which has of course been a theatrical enterprise, not a knowledge-productive one, for some years now—seems to employ countless people who lack this rudimentary qualification. The result? A litany of bad impersonations.

Think Angelina Jolie’s Epirote-Macedonian accent in Alexander. Or Mickey Rooney as an older Japanese gentleman in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Or Keanu Reeves’ impression of a human. These are mimetic tours de force compared to certain folks’ attempts to portray scientists.

When did pseudoscience become a dying art?

Al Gore—the emphysematous moral voice of the climate movement—was invited to give the Aspen Institute’s Annual Obscenity-Filled Rant in 2011. Speaking on the theme of ‘Networks and Citizenship: Basically B*llshit,’ Gore made quite an insightful observation, in a million-monkeys-with-a-million-typewriters kind of way:

“…these same people—I can go down a list of their names—are involved in this. And so what do they do? They, they, they, they pay pseudo-scientists to pretend to be scientists to put out the message…”

Fans of the work of Dwight Eisenhower sat up and took notice. Had the terrible spectre of the Pseudoscientific-Industrial Complex come true at last?

Historically, it’s never been necessary to, to, to, to, to pay pseudoscientists to pretend to be scientists, seeing as how they’re content to do so as a matter of dictionary definition, if not of passion.

But if the Vice President Emeritus was right, a once-noble vocation was now just another way to pay the mortgage. A mere, meretricious job. And we all know careerism brings with it a decline in professional excellence as surely as day harbings night. Once that happens, where’s the dedication to the craft?


Pictured: Al Gore (h. exaggerans) has been a household name since An Inconvenient Truth, the disinfomercial he shot for Generation Investment Management, swept the Oscars, Emmys and Nobels in 2007.†

So this post isn’t about pseudoscientists proper—people who use the Scientific Method the way thespians use the Stanislavskian Method, to make themselves plausible. It’s about really bad pseudoscientists—those who don’t even know how to be plausible.

In a word, bad actors.

All metaphors have their limitations, and ‘actors’ isn’t perfect. For starters, pseudoscience is closer to improv than to mainstream theatre.

The stars of stage and screen recite the lines someone else gave them. So if their bespectacled, pocket-protected character says something straight out of a Wachowski Brother, like…

1. “The results are clear: Efexovir has no effect on the virus. The experiment failed.”

2. “Studies show Decretussin reduces coughing, though not significantly.”

3. “Bigpharmox is what’s making these cattle obese, I know it; now I just have to prove it!”

…they can always blame bad writing. And by bad, I mean “good, unless the viewer happens to understand what the writer doesn’t.” To wit,

1. the entire point of an experiment in science.

2. the significance of ‘significance’ in science.

3. the absolute precedence of evidence over knowledge in science.

Script or no script, if the audience understands more than the character, the conditions are present for irony.

Which brings us to the issue we’ve been tiptoeing around: leakage.

Let’s talk frankly about leakage already

We can define leakage as the involuntary communication of data unhelpful to one’s own cause. You may have heard of it in the context of microexpressions, whereby fleeting facial movements can betray one’s emotional agenda to the skilled observer.

As an unskilled observer, I can only detect macroexpressions. Thank God, then, for incontinent characters like Stephan Lewandowsky (homo labilis), the skeptic-smeller pursuivant and abnormal psychologist whose truths veritably ooze from the arrases he seeks to secrete them behind. So profuse is this trickle that you probably don’t need training by Dr Paul ‘Lie to Me’ Ekman to unpack the following GIF in real time.


Pictured: Stefan ‘al-Australyi’ Lewandowsky, Professor of Punitive Psychology at Bristol University. A mercurial figure, he refuses to disclose whether he leads the anti-disclosure cult Data Haram.1

Note how Prof. Lewandowsky’s face manifests all 7 [seven] culture-invariant emotions in this short loop. My ethnoethology is a bit rusty but I think the list goes something like:

• Surprise

• Sadness

• Pomposity

• Piracy

• Ecstasy (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine)

• B*tshit insane

• Low to medium dudgeon

The irony arises from what we can assume is Lewandowsky’s obliviousness to how he looks to neurotypicals. (Otherwise, why do this to himself?)

But leakage can also operate at the level of ideas.

In the aftermathematics of Climategate 1.0 the Guardian ran a series of admirably even-handed stories by Fred Pearce (which nonetheless bent over forwards to sympathize with Teh Scientists, as per house style). The excerpt below, which quotes an alarmist called Tim Barnett, is one of my favorite snippets of climate commentary ever; the whole article is here. Read closely, because it tells us much more than anyone involved seems to realize.

Tim Barnett, then of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California, San Diego, joined [Phil] Jones to form a small group within the IPCC to mine this data for signs of global warming, ready to report in the next [IPCC] assessment due in 2001.

‘What we hope is that the current patterns of temperature change prove distinctive, quite different from the patterns of natural variability in the past,’ Barnett told me in 1996. Even then they were looking for a hockey stick.

This passage is not just ironic but meta-ironic: the truth unwittingly revealed by the interviewee is reported no more wittingly by the interviewer himself, giving rise to what Lewandowsky would probably call Recursive Seepage.2

For instance,

• If Barnett “hoped” to find a signal that AGW was real, he must have hoped that AGW was real. (Either that, or he hoped to find a misleading signal pointing to the reality of something that wasn’t, in reality, real—but would anyone confess such a desire to a newspaper reporter?)

• Even then, back in 1996, they were practicing ecneics. To say that someone was ‘looking for a hockey stick’ two years before the publication of Mann, Bradley and Hughes’ iconic graph in 1998 is like saying Watson and Crick set out in search of the double helix. They did no such thing, obviously—they set out in search of the structure of DNA, because (unlike ‘a small group within the IPCC’) they were practicing science, a method of inquiry that has been defined as ‘the opposite of ecneics.’

Or at least it tells me all these things, because I’ve been indoctrinated in the scientific mode of thought. Perhaps, reader—through no fault of your own—you haven’t been, and what’s so self-mansplanatory to me may therefore be less so to you.

You could be the smartest person on the planet, but if you’re on the wrong side of the so-called Sokal divide between the Humanities and Science you can’t be expected to guess how scientists reason. It’s so counterintuitive that our upright ancestors had to pace back and forth for half a million years before coming up with the modern scientific method three centuries ago. For all I know, you might be Christopher Hitchens reincarnate—a polymath who listed his two areas of ignorance as sport and science—but the implications of the Pearce article could still elude you as completely as they elude Fred Pearce, who recounts these events as if they were the most (non-post-) normal thing in the world.

If, however, you do share my doctrinal background, then I hardly need to point out that a scientist can’t hope she’ll find evidence that P(x) unless she hopes that P(x).

You may even have had the same reaction I had when I first read Barnett’s quote: this is a misprint, right? What would possess a “mainstream” climate researcher to admit to a desire that’s fully tantamount—if you’re a scientist—to a desire for man-made global warming?

The explanation, it turns out, is that the average Guardian reader is no scientist. Fred Pearce, Science Correspondent, is no scientist. Tim Barnett, the quote-unquote scientist he quotes, is no—well, you get the idea.

To people like that, ordinary people, it makes perfect sense to imagine Barnett hunched over a keyboard muttering in an honest, hardworking, underpaid voice: “I know it; now I just have to prove it in time for the Big Science Meeting!”

There’s nothing wrong with this picture as far as they can see, for theirs is not the epistemology of science but of a bad screenplay.


In his 1965 essay To Tell a Chemist, Isaac Asimov wonders how to triage practitioners of chemistry from poseurs. He comes up with a heuristic: put the word “unionized” on a sheet of paper and ask the subject to read it back to you. A real chemist will use four syllables, while someone who just plays one on TV will use three.

Either way, unless she happens to be an aficionada of Asimov, she probably won’t even guess the purpose of your question. The information you’re really interested in will be leaked rather than disclosed knowingly.

Asimov’s test is an example of a shibboleth: a linguistic or paralinguistic challenge that separates in-group from out-group members, often without their awareness.

The most famous shibboleth in Western culture comes, of course, from the great escapist film Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Scene: a TAVERN in a BASEMENT in occupied France. The EPONYMOUS ILLEGITIMI are here to meet their contact in the Resistance, BRIDGET VON HAMMERSMARK, a classically attractive blonde in her thirties.

The Basterds, who are attempting to pass as SS officers, certainly look the part in their crisp John Cook regalia. Trouble is, some actual Nazis are in the same tavern at the same time. One of them overhears spokesbasterd Royal Marine Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), who was born, raised and taught foreign languages on the other side of the Channel.

It isn’t what Hicox says, per se, that arouses the suspicions of Gestapo Major Dieter Helstrom (August Diehl). If anything, the Englishman speaks hypercorrect German, as though afraid the bad guys will seize on the slightest solecism to unmask him. His paranoia is understandable: even back in the 1940s, the Germans were known for being real German Nazis.

It’s the accent he says it in. Fassbender himself is an acting Wunderkind so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s just acting—rather brilliantly—as though he’s not particularly brilliant at acting German, which he is. (German, that is; on his parents’ side.) I’m not personally (German, that is) but even I know the difference between ‘gehen’ and ‘gern’; Hicox doesn’t, and he’s apparently too cereal-eared to hear himself.

After all, shibboleth comes from the Hebrew word for ‘ear of wheat.’

But Hicox’ hiccup isn’t the end of the world. Thinking on his feet without leaving his chair, he manages to explain the accent away with an unlikely tale about growing up in a dialectical enclave at the foot of the Piz Palü. Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) backs his story. It’s a masterclass in the art of the große Lüge, delivered defiantly and to the apparent satisfaction of Sturmbannführer Helstrom.

It’s only now that our hero makes his fatal faux pas. To toast the thawing of relations with his Nazi nemesis, Hicox signals the bartender for “drei Gläser” by raising three fingers, thus flunking what an ethnomathematician—yes, that’s a thing—would call a dactylonomic shibboleth. The slip-up precipitates an internecine shootout straight out of a Tarantino movie. (“You’ve just given yourself away,” says Dieter, cocking his Walther at Archie’s johnson.)

The wonders of frame advance allow us to study Fräulein von Hammersmark’s reaction the moment things go downhill (below). Despite doing her level best to hide the decline, a microexpression of dismay flickers across her face when Hicox f*ddrucks up: note a slight widening of the eyes and tension of the depressores anguli oris. Bad acting kills, but Kruger is not a bad actress by a long shot.


Pictured: Hicox (R) commits a digital communications protocol error. Things quickly turn sinister after this dexterity fail.

Hammersmark is the sole person to limp away from the ensuing bullet-hell alive—SPOILER ALERT: don’t read that last bit if you haven’t seen the movie—whereupon she’s taken to an anti-Vichy clinic for veterinary attention. It’s there that Hauptbasterd Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the film’s protagonist, demands a post-mortem into the botched rendezvous. The fräulein, left laterally decumbent on an autopsy table, shows Raine the gestural difference between three (à l’anglais) and sree. When ordering whisky glasses à l’allemande the thumb represents one, not five; the index finger is two, not one, and so on.


Pictured: (L to R) The difference between a British three on one hand, and a German three on exactly the same hand for ease of comparison.

Something about the teutonically-correct manoeuvre might look odd to us—even if we can’t put our finger on it—but we have no difficulty understanding it. Nor vice versa: just before all Heil broke loose in the tavern, three glasses had arrived at the table as requested.

As plot devices go I think this shibboleth is a more plausible casus belli, or fusilli, than people give writer and director Quentin Tarantino credit for. Finger-counting is a skill we acquire on our mother’s and father’s knees, but once mastered never relearn, no matter how many European languages we take in college. We can go our whole adult lives without giving a second thought to our dactylonomic style (especially since the other styles we’re likely to encounter are mutually intelligible)—until we have kids of our own and find ourselves reënacting the rituals our parents drummed into us, into our muscle memory. From this point of view, the way we digitize numbers might be seen as even more responsive than the way we vocalize words to questions of race, nationality, blood und so weiter. Is it really such a stretch to suppose Hicox’s digital gaucherie was just as offensive as his phonetic maladroitness to the volksy sensibilities of a man like Helstrom? Might it not, in fact, have been his main gaucherie?

Tarantino, who worked in a library of some sort during high school, peppers all his films with literary allusions. So it may not surprise you that the massacre in the tavern pays homage to an even earlier and bloodier one. In chapter twelve of the Book of Judges as brought to you by King James of House Stuart, sixth and first of his name, we read:

5 And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when any of those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over, the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;

6 Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites.

Explaining the /ʃ → s/ shift, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (vol. 3, p. 458) says that “the sibilants are notoriously difficult in Semitic languages.”

It doesn’t have to be the word shibboleth, of course. The long, dark history of racially-unsafe spaces shows you can use almost any staple crop to sift the wheat from the chaff. The same book notes that “during World War II, the Nazis identified Russian Jews by the way they pronounced the word for corn: kookoorooza.”

Whether kookoorooza was used cereally or in parallel with lollapalooza I’m not sure, but the latter was a favorite password of the Allies, who used it to CAPTCHA many a Japanese Imperial forward scout.

You’ve heard the cliché about the Greatest Generation: if it weren’t for their valor and self-sacrifice we’d all be speaking German (or at least the Austrian equivalent). Can you imagine running around all day sounding like Bruno Ganz in Downfall? How tiring. For my money, though, the Academy Award for Best Leading Führer in a Foreign Language Film belongs to Oliver Masucci for his performance as a reanimated Hitler in the magical-realist comedy Er Ist Wieder Da (released in English as Look Who’s Back). Masucci gives his character, Er, the full kid-with-a-retainer treatment in a spitting image of the dictator’s spittle-flecked idiolect.

If there are Semitic speakers who pronounce ‘sh’ as ’s,’ it stands to reason that anti-Semitic speakers would have the opposite problem, changing /s → ʃ/.

Sure enough, Hitler gives us utterances like “Dasch war ein Schertsch!” The clip below compares Masucci’s Bavarianisms—more staccato than scherzo, to be honestwith the normative diction of August Diehl in Basterds (“Es war ein Scherz!”).


Pictured: In order of appearance: anti-Semitic versus standard articulation of iso-semantic sentences.

And they say linguistics isn’t a predictive science.

But whether the Second World War is best read as a clash of shibbolizations, syllabizations or sibilizations writ large, we cannot help but ask the broader question of what any of this has to do with climate change.

On one level, the answer is obvious. The analogy between global warming—which scientists fear has already coaxed some butterfly species into expanding their range northwards, and may even have prolonged the blossoming season of a number of flowers—and World War II—which killed and maimed tens of millions of human beings—has been pointed out so many times, it would be derivative to belabor it here.

On another, less insane level, they have absolutely nothing in common beyond shibboleths and their utility in the rooting-out of impostors. Just as a bad spy gives himself away by doing something no Nazi would do, a bad pseudoscientist gives himself away by saying something no scientist would say.

We come therefore to the interactive portion of the evening. I invite you to put on your Toteskopfinsigniahatten and play Schibbolethfindung!® with me.

The interactive portion

In each scene, a bad actor is trying to impersonate a scientist. Your challenge is to say:

• where exactly they blow their cover, and why [5 points]

• what a proper pseudoscientist would have done [5 points]

The examples start out easy. (Scroll down for solutions.)

Scene 1. Phil Jones

How you know the name: Professor Jones (h. occultus) was the ringleader of the ClimateGate Research Unit [UEACGRU]. Ten years ago a large tranche of his emails was miraculously leaked which—as everybody knows [source: hundreds of independent inquiries on seven continents]—showed no wrongdoing whatsoever, leading him to contemplate suicide.

What he said: In response to an inquisitive email from the scientist Warwick Hughes, Jones wrote [with edits for basic literacy]:

Even if WMO agrees, I will still not pass on the data. We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it? There is IPR to consider. You can get similar data from GHCN at NCDC.

Scene 2. Ken “What’s Left of Physics” Rice

How you know the name: You don’t. Rice is an intensely modest person who wanted his efforts to save the planet by being uncivil to climate deniers to remain anonymous. To his embarrassment, however, he was eventually ‘outed’ as the Scicom genius behind such blogs as To The Left of Centre, MyGreatWottsUpWithThatSite.org and …And Then There’s Physics.

Little is known about Rice except that he identifies as a scientist and his preferred pronouns are ‘who/wott.’

What he said: A couple of years ago, Rice expounded his vacuous life philosophy that we should all defer to the expertise of specialists by believing what they say until they forfeit that respect by saying something he (Ken) doesn’t believe.

Since the great bioastrologist hadn’t banned me from his blog yet, I left a comment:

Great post. One of the most embarrassing things for me as a climate skeptic is how many people on my ‘side’ have apparently never heard the definition of science: ‘Science is the belief in the knowledge of experts.’

Rice replied:

Brad, thanks. At least we seem to agree on some things.

Scene 3. Naomi Oreskes

How you know the name: Professor Oreskes, a Connecticut-based academic, became Patient Zero in the bimbonic plague that is Consensus Science when she got a manuscript called The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change published in the December, 2004 edition of Science, a prestige glossy. Oreskes’ unreviewed, unreviewable essay shed pseudo-light on the non-problem of how many of teh scientists rejected teh science.


Pictured: Naomi Oreskes (above, far left) is a leading historian of Consensus Science, a concept she made up in 2004.

What she said: In Merchants of Doubt—the film based on the book based on the authors’ delusions—Oreskes (2015) reminisces about Oreskes (2004). To quote the screenplay:

The question was, how many of these papers disagree that most of the observed warming is due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations?

So I certainly thought we would get some that disagreed.

And when we found nothing, then I thought, ‘Oh, this is a result that needs to be published.’

When my article on the scientific consensus came out, I started getting threatening emails, saying that I was a communist, that I should be fired from my job.

Scene 4. Stephan Lewandowsky

How you know the name: Steffen ‘Stevan’ Lewandowsky (h. retractans) is an Anglo-American psychologist from Australia who’s been called God’s .gif to mankind. In 2015 he was created a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry for his nonpareil work on the understanding of, and one day—who knows?—cure for, skepticism.

Lewandowsky’s magnum opus, Recursive Fury (2013), evidenced at last what everybody had always known: that climate skeptics are conspiracy theorists. Yet barely a year after its publication, the editors of Frontiers in Psychology withdrew the study, saying they’d caved in to ethical considerations.

The official narrative wasn’t fooling Lewandowsky, however. Not for a minute. He insists his paper was actually the victim of ‘activities beneath the surface, hidden from public view’7—an echo of his earlier writings on the ‘subterranean war on science’6 (an ‘active, vicious, and well-funded campaign of denial that seeks to delay action against climate change’).4 This little-known ‘propaganda war on science and scientists’3 is waged by ‘ostensible think tanks’ and their ‘chimerical pseudo-scientific conferences’4 via the ‘thought-control machinery of the right-wing media,’ the ‘intimidation and censorship tactics of the denial industry’ and other ‘less visible means of attack,’5 Lewandowsky explains.

L’affaire Recursif certainly shed light on the paranoid nature of anti-scientific thought—though not in quite the way Lewandowsky had hoped.


Pictured: Steve Levandowsky (h. fugax) has never managed to get a good look at the shadowy interests that are out to get him, and can only describe them as “wearing vests.”

What he said: In a highly speculative blog post on the mystery of how science is done, Lewandowsky imagined that,

[C]limate denial is just that: denial, not scepticism.

Science is inherently sceptical, and peer-review is the instrument by which scientific scepticism is pursued.

Circumventing or subverting that process does not do justice to the public’s need for scientific accountability.

Scene 5. Naomi Oreskes redux

How you know the name: Oreskes is a half-historian ex-geologist who co-authored the half-true one-star alt-history conspiracy yawner Merchants of Doubt (2010).

The book exposed for the first time the diabolicalTobacco Strategy’ used by climate skeptics everywhere: disagreeing with scientific claims you don’t agree with.

(This is not to be confused with the Tobacco Strategy used by Al Gore, which basically involves raising tobacco, putting it in the plant beds with your own hands, transferring it, hoeing it, digging in it, spraying it, chopping it, shredding it, spiking it, putting it in the barn, stripping it and selling it—despite watching your own sister die after smoking it for forty years—then bragging about it to win rural votes.)

What she said: Is there anything as tedious to the criminal mind as impunity? Having gotten away scot-free with interfering with the grave of Science by Consensus, performing unspeakable rituals upon its cadaver and finally propping it up, Weekend-at-Bernie’s-style, as a proxy for scientific evidence, Oreskes must have grown bored at some point. At least I assume that’s why she put her name to the self-parodying ‘Consensus on Consensus’ paper [CoC] in 2016. When said paper was released we witnessed a chorus of self-congratulations as to the utter obviousness of its results. Oreskes sang along, reports Inside Climate News:

‘It’s really very sad that we still have to write a paper like this, but unfortunately we do,’ Oreskes said. ‘We’ve known about the science for a long time now. Can we please have a conversation about how to fix this problem?’


Pictured: Naomi “Mica” Oreskes showing how she got her mineralogical nickname—and #tagging herself into the campaign to wit-shame Professor Tim Hunt, a Nobel-Prize-winning cancer geneticist convicted of failing to use sarc tags. (Historians consider the Tim Hunt witch-hunt somewhat unusual, in that the witches won.)

Scene 6. Anders “Wotty” Rice redunce

How you know the name: From Question 2 above.

What he said: Professor Ken Rice is proud of his participation, in 2016, in the abovementioned ‘Consensus On Consensus’ hexadecagon-jerk. But in a classic denihilist strategy, Professor Richard Tol intimidated the CoCkey Team by arguing with them. So it was up to Rice, as fifteenth co-author, to defend Teh Science on his anonyblog, where he anonyblogged:

Maybe next time Richard should stamp his little feet a bit harder and maybe he’ll get his own way. […] It might also be worth considering the irony of Richard apparently communicating his issues to a site that is best known for denying the mainstream scientific position with respect to climate science. It’s almost as if Richard doesn’t get the point of consensus studies; they’re mainly to refute claims made on, for example, sites like WUWT that there isn’t a consensus.

Suggested answers

(Some questions may have more than one solution.)

Scene 1:

Jones gives himself away by asking why he should share his data with someone whose aim is to try and find something wrong with it.

No scientist in his right mind could have failed to anticipate the comeback:

“Because my aim is to try and find something wrong with it, lackwit.”

Asking the World’s Silliest Question is a tell. But what, pray tell, does the tell tell us? It tells us it must have been several years since Phil Jones had spent any time around scientists.

A proper pseudoscientist would have kept his obscurantist philophily secret. The last thing he’d do is put it in writing to an opponent, thereby waiving any expectation of privacy even by the whiniest of Climategate-apologetics standards.

And it’s not as if Prof. Jones was unfamiliar with pseudoscientific best practice when dealing with FOI requests: i.e., run and hide.

In fact a lemma search on the Climategate emails confirms that ’hide’ was his favorite English verb. Transitively or intransitively, Phil Jones enjoyed nothing more than hiding in the simple future (‘a data protection act which I will hide behind’), future continuous (‘I will be hiding behind… the agreements we sign’), simple past (‘I hid behind the fact that some of the data had been received from individuals’), infinitive (’to hide the decline’) or just the modal of possibility (‘he has retired, so he can hide behind that’).

Here’s a tip for Jones’ successors at the CGRU. On the rare occasion when flight isn’t an option—let’s say a pride of skeptics has Serengetied you, cutting off your retreat, or whatever—there’s a whole blog post of other options to consider before doing something irreparable like blurting out your brain-felt feelings. It’s by Stephan Lewandowsky, so you know it’s safe to read.

Conclusion: Jones may have been a pseudoscientist for tax-return purposes, but this was strictly amateur hour. Better pseudoscientists, please.

Scene 2:


Pictured: Dr Ken Rice is a ‘communicator’ who used to feign politeness. It only took him three unpopular blogs to realize it was easier to be himself.

Ken Rice gives himself away not just by taking my facetiousness at face value (who among us hasn’t done that?) but by agreeing, in deadly earnest, with my Medieval, hierophantic anti-definition of science.

A proper pseudoscientist would have done enough homework on Richard Feynman’s oeuvre—if only for the sake of Sun-Tzu diligence—to recognize the “ignorance of experts” quote. (Even ATTP’s quicker-witted denizens tried to warn him he’d bepunked himself.)

I mean really, Kenneth old bean, how do you expect to look wearily up your nose at the thinkings of thinkers as far above your contempt as Popper and Feynman—the bêtes noires of all self-respecting pseudoscientists—when you don’t have so much as a Wikipedia-level, meme-deep familiarity with them? Better pseudoscientists, please!

Scene 3:

Oreskes gives herself away by revealing, with a decorticate rictus, that she picks and chooses which results to publish:


Pictured: Is Naomi Oreskes a real pseudoscientist, or does she just play one in movies?

A proper pseudoscientist would have had the sense to keep quiet. What Oreskes confesses to without a hint of embarrassment—publication bias—is nothing to be goofily grinned at, because it contaminates the peer-reviewed literature by skewing the balance of evidence for and against hypotheses.

To be sure, everybody does it (unless they work in a field like medical science, where the study itself costs so much that somebody is bound to notice if it doesn’t make it to print). Feynman’s dream of a world where every result is reported is still just that: an opium reverie.

In that sense, publication bias is an open secret. But it’s also a dirty secret. Even the most Chaucerian charlatan knows better than to admit to it—or so I assumed until I became the lucky 100th cinephile to fast-forward through The Protocols of the Elders of Doubt.

Better pseudoscientists, please.

Scene 4:

The unflushable Lew gives himself away by suggesting that peer review is a privileged step in the scientific process where “scientific skepticism” suddenly kicks in. I’m afraid this is what scientists would call Not Even Wrong Right Close.


Pictured: Stephan Lewandowsky (h. paranoides), who’s now on Twitter. Feel free to follow him, but no closer than five car lengths—he’s easily spooked.

“The instrument by which scientific scepticism is pursued,” to the extent that that phrase is intelligible, is not peer review; it’s a little thing we call the scientific method.

Needless to say, this method predates the post-War adoption of peer review as a postscript to the research life-cycle. The generations of scientists who lived and died before Lewandowsky was born were perfectly capable of “scientific scepticism” even without the benefit of mandatory spell-checking by two or three random colleagues.

That’s because in science, ‘skepticism’ has little to do with its colloquial meaning of suspicion or distrust of other people’s claims. (Heteroskepticism, if you’ll excuse the coinage.) Ninety percent of a scientist’s skeptical workload is self-skepticism. Every scientist on Earth groks this, and every pseudoscientist worth his or her salt pretends to. Will Lewandowsky ever be worth his salt? Maybe. Someday. Particularly if he’s reincarnated as a slug.

Like most of life’s tragedies, this gaffe could have been averted with a little Feynman. I’m sure you recall, unless your name is an anagram of What Lysenko Spawned, the great physicist’s first principle of science:


First principle, mind you—not afterthought; not procedural nicety; not post-Hiroshima etiquette. We’ll come back to this in a split-moment.

Feynman disdained jargon, especially philosophical -isms, being much more interested in understanding how birds work than in rattling off ornithological nomenclature. But for those of us who enjoy labeling things, there happens to be a one-word, four-syllable name for Feynman’s First Principle of Science.

The word rhymes (more or less) with peptic schism. It means trying not to fool yourself, and as I may have mentioned, it’s the first principle of science.

A proper pseudoscientist would have realized he was out of his depth when he started contradicting his own confabulations. Here’s a clue, Lew, with my emphasis: “science is inherently sceptical.” When you’re accidentally getting things right, that’s your cue to leave science to the scientists, pseudoscience to the pseudoscientists, and stick to what you’re good at. Like, say, carabiner maintenance or travel tips for the budget-oblivious frequent flyer.

Better pseudoscientists, please!

Scenes 5 and 6:

These are left as an exercise. I don’t want to prejudice your answers in the (not unlikely) event that you can think of an even better way of articulating them. I look forward to your comments. ■


Pictured: No questionnaire would be valid without a #sexy distractor item.

About the title

Anthropocene /ˈan(t)-thrə-pə-ˌsēn, an-ˈthrä-/ n.

: the period [sic] of time during which human activities have had an environmental impact on the Earth regarded as constituting a distinct geological age [sic]

Source: ‘Anthropocene.’ Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2019.


Is there anything in science—short of climate itself—that’s quite as exciting as geology? If there is I don’t want to know about it. I doubt my mitral valve could stand the thrill.

Kids these days are all about the botany, which just shows a lack of perspective if you ask me. But I’ve grown up a lot since I turned 18. For starters I now live 26cm closer to the Taj Mahal, and counting. Once you’ve experienced that kind of continental drift in real time, watching grass grow is like watching paint dry.

Sure, it’s riveting… for a couple of weeks. A month, maybe, if we’re talking a really top-quality grass like your maidencane or your hairy panic.

But past the two-month mark? Give me a menagerie of pet rocks any day. You can keep your flesh-eating fly-traps, man-killing triffids and meat-reeking arums. No plant that’s ever walked the earth can grab one’s brain by the groin, scientifically speaking, the way a good stratigraphy survey can.

Given the literally earth-shattering ramifications of geology, it’s no wonder the field can get pretty heated. Lately it’s become the focus of a rancor not seen since Luke killed it in Jedi. The cause of raised voices this time is nothing less than that eternal human question: when are we?

A few years ago the answer would have been obvious. We’re in the Holocene, that’s when. But then scientists noticed that humans had mastered the art of literally changing the very environment around them. Gone were the days when man could only look up to the mighty beaver and his dam cities in awe and resentment. At some point—the date is disputed—we’d built a dam nation of our own: Holland, an ocean-defying miracle that seemed to be dammed by God himself. The beaver had become the beavee.

Fast-forward a second or two, in geological terms, and JFK is sworn in as President of the United States. Early on in the Kennedy administration, bristlecone pine trees—having acted as thermometers for untold millennia—suddenly flip their physiology. Without warning, up meant cold and down meant hot. And it was all, somehow, because of us. To scientists the implication was clear: human influence wasn’t confined to the Netherlands (or mechanistic plausibility) any more.

The Time of Men—the Anthropocene—had begun.

But don’t break out the Golden Spikes just yet. Epochs comprise a number of subdivisions, so we also have to ask in what age we’re living. The answer, say the geologists who’ve studied the politics of science, is the Shibbolithic, a time defined by the endemicity of Bad Actors.

Hang on, you object: isn’t this the Post-Truth Age, named after the relativistic Zeitgeist that makes no distinction between fact and fiction, A and not-A, yea and not-yea, nay and not-nay?

Yes and no.

Granted, public figures have begun making false or misleading statements for the first time ever in our collective memory. On the other hand, history has a long history of oscillating between Truth and Non-Truth Ages. This back-and-forth is vividly seen in the geological record itself, with its alternating stripes of high and low stercobilin concentration (a pigment found in coprolites and associated with male aurochs, beeves and other kine).

Which is why ‘Post-Truth’ is considered a misnomer. Rather, geologists refer to the layer between a Fictionalization Event and a Reverification—corresponding to an individual stratum of b*llshit—as a Between-Truth Age, or Interfactual. The Modern Shibbolithic is simply the shallowest example thereof.

But if there’s one thing climate science has discovered about psychology, it’s that a person will dispute the nose in front of his face if it ramifies politically. So it is that a tiny, fringe majority of geologists, ideologically opposed to the Anthropocene Epoch and determined to prolong the Holocene at all costs, insists we’re merely at the dawn of a new sub-epoch they call the Meghalayan Age.

When their Meghalayan hypothesis is weighed by scientists like Mark Maslin in legitimate forums like The Conversation, however, it is found wanting—even “flawed.”

Yet rather than attack this scientific evidence, Meghalayan advocates casuistically accost their critics with caustic cries of “Holocene denier!”

To state the obvious, this is an attempt to smear scientists with Holodomor denial, the movement that seeks to sweep the genocidal starvation of Soviet Ukraine, circa 1932–3, under the carpet. Such historical revisionism is illegal throughout the European Union; how long before Anthropocene believalism itself is verboten by association? Climate anthropologists like Maslin are hard to chill, but if any prospect is chilling, it’s this one.

Meanwhile, Look Which Well-Known German Chancellor is Back! Er ist wieder da… in the Indian province of Meghalaya, no less. Coincidence? ■


An Inconvenient Truth was soon shown to be riddled with ctrl-alt-delete-facts, and it’s hard to find an adult who can watch it with a straight face these days. But while schools now represent the bulk of its DVD sales, AIT isn’t just for kids. The feature-length ad speaks, in a timeless way, to anyone whose cognitive immune system (or ‘skepticism’) is dangerously underdeveloped—whether they’re gullible… or just gullible at heart.

1 Data Haram—the name means ‘freedom from information’ in Arabic—is an anti-enlightenmentalist group opposed to Western civilization. The sect historically denied all accusations of existing, and virtually nothing was known about its aims or tactics. That changed in 2017, when DH’s manifesto was mistakenly published as a Nature article.

2 Don’t mind me, I’m just making a hilarious play on the titles of two Lew papers (Recursive Fury and Seepage).

3Bitten by a sock puppet, but the climate is still changing

4The Morality of Unmasking Heartland

5Stephen Lewandowsky: Confronting the Anti-Science Thought Police

6The Subterranean War on Science

7Recursive Fury goes recurrent

via Watts Up With That?


April 9, 2020 at 12:35PM

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