John Cook, arch academic and scourge of the climate denier, worries a lot about fake experts, particularly those who lack the academic stature required to comment upon climate change.
They disturb him. Which is all very well, but such concerns would be a lot more credible if they were not coming from someone who himself has the kudos you’d expect from the love child of Darth Vader and Mrs Potato Head. His lack of regard for the stature of certain pundits stems from his preoccupation with credentials and academic standing. My lack of regard for him stems from the poor quality of his work; proof, if it were needed, that credentials and academic standing are not what one should be fixated upon.
I speak, of course, of Cook’s1 FLICC taxonomy, in which he neatly characterises the average denialist’s tactics by suggesting they can be covered by a relatively small number of errors of thinking:
- False Expertise
- Logical Fallacy
- Impossible Expectations
- Cherry Picking
- Conspiracy Theory
As with Ed Hawkins’ warming stripes, FLICC is a glob of propaganda that has gained a traction that outstrips the quality of thinking behind it. And, as with Ed Hawkins’ warming stripes, the BBC and its fact-checking disinformation specialists appear to have really taken it on board and are more than happy to accept it uncritically. After all, Cook has credentials and academic standing. So I’m sure that anything I might want to say about FLICC would be pounced upon straight away by the BBC and stamped with a big red ‘FALSE’. Like Cook, they know a fake expert when they see one.
I see it differently, of course. I say that if you set out to construct a taxonomy of climate disinformation and denial techniques, and then seek to publish it in several languages, then the avoidance of multi-lingual mumbo jumbo should have been one of your objectives. It seems to me that it wasn’t. I really haven’t got time to cover all the reasons why I have a problem with this taxonomy, so I will instead concentrate my efforts upon making just the one observation:
Although aimed at the denier, there isn’t a single valid aspect of FLICC that cannot be readily turned around and used as a means of criticising the thinking behind climate alarmism.
This is because it isn’t actually a taxonomy of denialist tactics; it is simply a taxonomy of tactics. Cook turns it into the former only by supplying choice examples. On the other hand, I can easily turn it into a taxonomy of alarmist disinformation tactics by pulling the same trick. In fact, I think I’m in the mood to give you a flavour of how this works. For the purposes of the demonstration, I will focus upon what the taxonomy has to say about false expertise. I think this most apt because, in my uncredentialed opinion, that’s precisely what John Cook represents.
Let us start with Cook’s definition of the technique he calls ‘Fake Expert’:
“Fake experts are spokespeople that convey the impression of expertise on a topic while possessing little to no relevant expertise. A common characteristic of science denialists are that the vast majority are “private researchers” without the credentials required to public [sic] climate research in peer-reviewed journals.”2
So it is all about relevant experience and credentials then. In which case, what are we to make of a hydrologist who pontificates upon the nature of uncertainty and comes up with the howler that epistemic uncertainty is unscientific? Or how about the psychologist who, despite a complete lack of relevant experience and credentials, attempts to demonstrate mathematically that greater uncertainty implies higher risk, and falls flat on his face because he fails to understand how the measurement of uncertainty actually works? Or how about a cognitive scientist who has all of the credentials but still can’t get the basic terminology of cognitive bias right? I speak, of course, of Peter Gleick, Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook himself, all of whom seek to expose false expertise whilst demonstrating that they are themselves masters of that trade. I have said many times on this blog that the climate change debate is primarily concerned with decision-making under uncertainty. The foundational principles of decision theory and decision analysis lie outside of climatology and there is precious little evidence of their expert application within. But let us move on, because Cook has more to say on the subject:
“Bulk fake experts are one of the most potent incarnations of the fake expert technique.”2
To make his point he cites the Global Warming Petition project, for which there were 31,000 signatories. Gleefully, he points out that “over 99% of the signatories possess no research expertise in climate science”. Fair enough, but let’s now talk about the constitution of the IPCC. Based upon Cook’s own criterion, I think you will find that the majority of its contributors are fake experts. Or what about Greta Thunberg (no fake expert there) and her soon-to-be-released definitive tome on the subject? It has no fewer than 200 contributors but once you have stripped away the playwrights, novelists, poets, child activists and half-baked journalists you will find very little genuine expertise manning the barricades. Everyone is playing the numbers game, John.
Finally3, there is ‘fake debate’. This he has defined as:
“Presenting science and pseudoscience in an adversarial format to give the false impression of an ongoing scientific debate.”4
Yes, I know, it’s awful, isn’t it? It’s like when Extinction Rebellion spokespeople are granted air time to promulgate their pseudoscientific views on the imminent extinction of the human race, and the programme makers expect true experts to waste their time rebutting such nonsense. Thank God the media put an end to all of that, if only by failing to invite the true experts along to the debate. Besides which, who needs true experts when you have the Guardian’s endorsement?
Actually, ‘fake debate’ is presenting the current issue as one of science versus pseudoscience because there is no longer a scientific or technological debate to be had. Fake debate is when the only debate allowed is the acceptance of that view.
Cosmic overlord or root vegetable?
I could go on by demonstrating how Logical Fallacy, Impossible Expectations, Cherry Picking and Conspiracy Theory are all ably employed in the interests of climate alarmism, apparently without John Cook noticing. Conspiracy theory ideation, in particular, seems a very odd stone to throw at the denialist, given how much conspiracist nonsense has been generated in the cause of alarmism. Take, for example, the idea that initially all of the world’s best climate scientists were employed by Big Oil and forced to produce misleading research reports that downplayed the problem. You couldn’t make it up – except that is exactly what Owen Sheers did for the BBC’s ‘documentary drama’, The Trick.
But I digress. The real point here is that it disturbs Cook that I should deign to challenge aspects of the climate change narrative despite my lack of academic stature. And yet it disturbs me even more to see that Cook’s own credentials were not enough to stop him from producing work that demonstrates so little expertise. Worse still, to the extent that his taxonomy can be said to apply to anyone, it can also be applied to everyone. That doesn’t make it the damning analysis of an expert, it is just the blunt and indiscriminate tool of an advocate. And I don’t care how many academic qualifications and cited papers John Cook has, if he continues producing advocacy of such poor quality, he will always remain a potato-headed Darth Vader to me.
Notes and References:
 Cook readily acknowledges that he based FLICC upon the account of science denial tactics first detailed by Mark Hoofnagle.
 A history of FLICC: 5 techniques of science denial
 There is another aspect to fake expertise that concerns Cook and that is the impression that the relatively few climate scientists that still defy the consensus are granted disproportionate importance by the sceptic. This is listed as a technique, although the reality is that it is simply the situation the sceptic is faced with. Should anyone be complaining about the ‘vanishingly small’’ number of scientists working in attribution science who are having such a disproportionate influence on the way the public thinks about extreme weather?
via Climate Scepticism
May 29, 2022 at 03:25AM