Weeding out the CRAP on climate change

September 26, 2017

When I taught research writing to first-year college students, I developed tools to help them navigate the shoals of the internet. Yes, the internet gives bona fide scientific researchers powerful tools for communicating their findings swiftly and across great expanses.

Unfortunately, the internet gives similar tools to Merchants of Doubt: people working (wittingly or unwittingly) to sow doubt about climate change.

To help first-year students determine the difference between valid and invalid sources, colleges and universities often teach "information literacy," and a handy mnemonic for evaluating sources is the CRAP Test. Is the information Current? Is it Reliable? Is it Authoritative? What was the author's Purpose? On these points, Foertsch's column fails miserably.

Foertsch uses a tactic common among Merchants of Doubt: bring up more and more fringe studies that "disprove" climate change research, so that readers eventually tire of the issue - or tire of the minutiae. His previously cited studies, discredited in responses by Flood and by me, are now replaced by a suite of new references, creating a seemingly endless game of whack-a-mole, played at not just one table but at several, with a new table waiting in the wings should all the moles be whacked.

Let's look at one of Foertsch's sources: Students in information literacy workshops learn to evaluate such a source as "Unreliable": whoever is posting on is certainly free to voice their "opinions," but opinions are not scientific evidence. Sites such as this one seek out obscure research running contrary to the 97% scientific consensus and tout that spurious research as having never been disproven by the mainstream scientific community. Their purpose is to counter bona fide science rather than seek and affirm knowledge about the climate.

I lack the space here to whack every mole that Foertsch presents in this new dissemination of doubt, so here is one representative example: "[Foertsch's critics] ignore Professor Ian Plimer, emeritus professor of earth sciences and mining geology" [on the correlation between CO2 and atmospheric temperature change]. Plimer is indeed a professor of earth sciences, but his field of expertise is primarily ore deposits.

He gets invited to speak at conferences sponsored by the Heartland Institute, with strong ties to the fossil fuel industry.

As recently as June 2017, Plimer wrote that "The planet has not warmed for two decades despite a massive increase in CO2 emissions during the industrialisation of Asia." This date certainly passes the criterion of Currency, but is it Reliable? No. It was published as an opinion piece in The Spectator (not a scientific journal) - and on a topic outside Plimer's realm of expertise. So the source fails the test of Authority, too.

Contrast Plimer's claim with those of the scientists at NASA: Sixteen of the 17 warmest years in the 136-year record have all occurred since 2001, with the exception of 1998. 2016 ranks as the warmest year on record. (Source: NASA/GISS). Scientists at NASA present their findings at conferences with no industry connections, seeking not to curry favor with big money but to advance knowledge through collective work - always reviewed by peers conducting research in the field and published on ".gov" or ".edu" sites rather than on domains such as ".us" that anyone can buy.

If Foertsch were in an information literacy class, his paper would fail, just as would a paper citing Al Gore as a primary resource, to whack another of Foertsch's moles.

Enough dissembling, Mr. Foertsch. Either dig down and go to bona fide science on each of the topics you address - an endeavor requiring many, many hours of weeding out CRAP - or simply stop publishing on a topic where your Libertarian ideology trumps science. Climate change is real, humans contribute to it by burning fossil fuels, and we must act swiftly and strongly at local, county, state, national, and international levels to counter it. Or great-great-grandchildren be damned.

Jim Henry
resident climate change zealot


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