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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Unlike Temperatures, Climate Change Deniers Are Falling Fast

By Phil Plait

If you’re hoping to deny the reality of global warming, things aren’t looking so good for you right now. A couple of events are making it ever more clear that those vocal about it are in trouble. Deservedly.

The first big item is that solar physicist Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon appears to be firmly in the pocket of fossil fuel interests. He is not a climate scientist, but he’s published papers linking changes in the Sun’s output to Earth’s temperature, claiming that it’s the Sun heating us up, not human-generated carbon dioxide.

His claims about the science have been pretty thoroughly torn apart by climate scientists dating back as far as 2003 and have also been refuted on the Skeptical Science site as well. Despite the claims, the Sun’s output has marginally decreased in recent years, while temperatures on Earth go up.

Greenpeace obtained FOIA documents showing Soon received more than $1 million of funding from Big Oil over the past few years. A funding source isn’t necessarily damning, except for two things. One is that Soon neglected to mention his funding in nearly a dozen papers he’s published, and that is a huge, huge, no-no in science. If you have a potential conflict of interest, you report it.

The other is that given that his science has been refuted, coupled with his funding, his repeated claims that human CO2 pollution isn’t causing global warming are pretty suspicious. When you find out his funding has come from Exxon, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Koch brothers, well, yikes.

What I find funny is that groups like the Heartland Institute—remember them, when they likened climate scientists to ruthless dictators and serial killers?—are defending Soon, when they were screaming bloody murder over the ridiculous “Climategate” nontroversy. For denial groups like them it’s all about sowing doubt.

But this is where we are today. The science is in, it’s extremely clear, and the consensus among climate scientists is solid. If your political stance is based on nonsense, and you’re called out, all you can rely on is doubling down, making lots of noise over nothing, or making increasingly embarrassing stunts. You certainly can’t rely on reality, because you’ve long since left that behind.

It can’t help that the film Merchants of Doubt comes out this week. The documentary, based on the book by Naomi Oreskes, outlines the shenanigans pulled by climate change deniers over the years. Hopefully it will raise awareness about them and their tactics.

Speaking of which, the second item causing deniers to sweat comes from Google. I recently wrote that the search engine is now using curated results when people search on vaccine-preventable diseases, to prevent the rampant spread of misinformation.

It seems Google may be preparing to use this science-based method of ensuring evidence-based results into other arenas, including climate change. Right now, Google uses various methods to rank search engine results, including the number and “authority” of sites that link to other sites. But this method is easy to game, giving pseudo- or anti-science sites higher credence in Google’s results page. Researchers at Google have published a paper proposing instead using “knowledge-based trust,” where the facts of the site are compared to what is commonly known to be true among trusted sources. As New Scientist says, “Facts the web unanimously agrees on are considered a reasonable proxy for truth.” You can claim, for example, that the Earth if flat, and get links from popular sites about it, but in this new system you won’t get much Google love. As you shouldn’t.

This has climate change deniers worried. As they should be. Since they rely on ridiculous, oft-debunked claims, their Google ranking could drop.

I’ll note that this new methodology is somewhat worrisome, since it still relies in some ways on a notion that if a majority of authorities agree on something, people who disagree could be shut down. In the paper, the researchers discuss ways the algorithm would need to improve. But it’s still, in theory, possible to game the system.

But it is rather comical to me, in a schadenfreude kind of way. Google wants to base search results on expert scientific consensus? Yes, that very well should give climate change deniers an existential frisson of fear.

One could even say that, for them, there really is a chill in the air.

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