Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The coming ice age and the virtualization of reality

Maybe you have already seen this image (reproduced from Greg Laden's blog). It is part of a campaign aiming at discrediting science and scientists. It goes more or less like this: Those scientists in the 1970s were predicting a new ice age coming. So much that it even made it to the front cover of "Time". And then, later on, they started talking about global warming (which was then transmogrified into climate change to further confuse us). How can we trust these people?

Well, the image on the left is a hoax; such a Time magazine cover never existed. As explained in a recent post by David Kirtley on Greg Laden's blog, it is a Paintshop job. The real cover is this one, not from 1977, but from 2007

The hoax that had "scientists worried about the coming ice age" reminds very much to me the story invented by Ronald Bailey in 1989 to to attack "The Limits to Growth" study. In a paper that he published in 1989 on "Forbes" he stated that the study had predicted that we would run out of some major mineral resources (gold, zinc, oil, and so on) by some specific dates that were already past at that moment. That, of course, showed that the whole study was completely unreliable. Well, Bailey's story was totally invented. There were no such predictions in "The Limits to Growth" study!

Reviewing these stories, it is impressive to see how effective these dirty tricks can be. And they are so simple! Just invent something from scratch; show how those pompous scientists turned out to be making silly mistakes. Nobody will check whether it is true or not but, if it is a good story, it will spread wildly around. This one of "scientists worried about the coming ice age" has done quite some damage to science and to all of us. Others, such as the "climategate scandal", turn out to be even more stubborn and dangerous.

It is also impressive to note how easy it is to create a complete alternate reality which has never existed. Simply changing the title of the cover of a magazine generates a whole parallel universe in which scientists are busy at warning people and policy makers about the need of preparing for an incoming glaciation. It is called, sometimes, "virtualization". We are so much focused on what we see and we read on the internet and on the media that we easily lose track of the fact that there is a physical reality, out there. Then, the ghosts of our imagination take over and create their own reality, complete of heroes and villains, virtues and vices, crime and punishment, and happy endings. But it is a reality made of such stuff dreams are made of.

If we work in communication in climate science, we might be tempted to use these methods. We shouldn't. Virtualizing reality by creating legends is a form of dark magic; not a good thing to get involved with. But, at least, we should know what kind of tricks and ruses we are facing. And, also, we should remember that physical reality, in the end, always wins. 


  1. "If we work in communication in climate science, we might be tempted to use these methods. We shouldn't. Virtualizing reality by creating legends is a form of dark magic; not a good thing to get involved with"

    AGREE, and it is also a matter of basic self-respect. (all sorts of lies and crimes and deceit often "work" in certain situations and contingencies; One of the few real assets honest people have (anyone has) is their own honesty and integrity; Stupid to squander them.

  2. This reminds me about something I read in "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Kahneman to partially explains why this simple method is so effective at discrediting science. And that is that humans are hardwired to be loss averse, which causes us to pay a lot more attention to the negative (discredit,pain,loss...) than the positive (credence,pleasure,gain...)

    A quote from Paul Rozin in the book by sums it up nicely:
    "a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches"

    1. Very nice, Frank. I think I'll reuse the cockroach in a bowl of cherries image. Thanks!