Yet more hackery

by John Quiggin on June 1, 2006

Brad DeLong and Matt McIrvin are annoyed by this Joel Achenbach piece on global warming sceptics. On the contrary, I think it’s a great instance of how the truth can be told while sticking to the much-criticised rules of journalistic objectivity (not the same thing as ‘balance’).

Achenbach reports the scientific evidence on global warming then investigates the “parallel Earth” (his words) of the soi-disant “sceptics”. As he says

It is a planet where global warming isn’t happening—or, if it is happening, isn’t happening because of human beings. Or, if it is happening because of human beings, isn’t going to be a big problem. And, even if it is a big problem, we can’t realistically do anything about it other than adapt.
Achenbach then proceeds to interview the sceptics, lets them speak for themselves, and lets the readers draw their own conclusion.

If you read the piece with any attention it’s impossible to avoid the conclusions that

  • Richard Lindzen, prominent MIT climate scientist, is an irresponsible contrarian, who’s prepared to defend an implausible position on the off chance of being right when everyone else is wrong
  • The Competitive Enterprise Institute, well-known Washington thinktank, is a set of industry shills who will say whatever Exxon pays them to say
  • William Gray, respected hurricane expert, is a raving loon who thinks climate change is a conspiracy to bring in world government and compares Al Gore to Hitler (as Achenbach notes, it’s almost impossible to keep the Nazis out of the discussion in GW-sceptic circles)
  • All these guys know the score as regards the others

And Achenbach gets right to the nub of the problem with ‘balanced’ coverage.

The skeptics don’t have to win the argument, they just have to stay in the game, keep things stirred up and make sure the politicians don’t pass any laws that have dangerous climate change as a premise. They’re winning that battle. The Senate had hearings on climate change this spring but has put off action for now. The Bush administration is hoping for some kind of technological solution and won’t commit itself to cuts in emissions.
A few more pieces like this, and I think the sceptics might find themselves out of the game.

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{ 76 comments }

1

Ted 06.01.06 at 7:42 am

How I wish it were true that being revealed as a fraud was enough to take people “out of the game”….

2

Mycroft 06.01.06 at 8:12 am

I don’t see a single piece of hard reasoning in the article. I fail to see how it could convince anybody of anything. Rouse interest, yes.

3

Chris 06.01.06 at 8:13 am

Brad DeLong is surely right when he says “Joel Achenbach’s true sin is his failure to lift a finger to evaluate any of the claims of global warming skeptics.”
How many people are aware of the science at all, other than second or third hand?
Is the man made global warming thesis, whatever the truth, being promoted more like religion than science? Burn those skeptics!

4

Bill Gardner 06.01.06 at 8:20 am

Ted @1:
Just so. The prize in this game is winning the election. The CEI is avoiding the science and seeking to cast Gore as a sanctimonious hypocrite. So? It is intellectually dishonest, but it may be very effective politics. They aren’t hacks until they lose the game that they are actually playing.

5

John Emerson 06.01.06 at 8:41 am

You’re all wrong. It was an artfully written piece designed to get past the “balance” censor while still telling the well-informed what’s really happening. Thus, everyone gets something. (This kind of writing was called “Aesopian” under the czars. Its better than pure misinformation, but it’s far worse than actual honest journalism. It’s pretty telling that czarist-era terminology works so well in analyzing contemporary US journalism).

Someone who just skims the first part of the piece will get an entirely different impression than someone who reads it carefully, and most newspaper readers are skimmers. I believe that Jonah Goldberg has already used this article to justify some of his ludicrous claims.

Part of the art of very bad, high-paid journalism is telling the truth in such a way that it won’t be understood. The mealy-mouthed choice of the lead is extremely important: “As evidence mounts that humans are causing dangerous changes in Earth’s climate, a handful of skeptics are providing some serious blowback”. Not directly rebutting false claims in detail is another. Conforming the story to a storyline (“some say…. others say”) is another. Just giving sympathetic treatment to a poor guy who lost his grants because his science was no good is misleading (and Bill Gray’s thing about “older guys” deserving respect is ludicrous too — in science you can be washed up when you’re 40).

Aschenbach’s article looks sort of OK beause there’s a lot of much worse stuff out there. We’ve gotten to the frightening place, however, that it’s more or less unthinkable that the Times or the Post (much less TV or cable) will write a straightforward unspun piece on global warming.

6

William Goodwin 06.01.06 at 8:47 am

I don’t know what people are talking about when they say Achenbach doesn’t “evaluate the claims” of the skeptics. He writes: “HUMAN BEINGS ARE PUMPING GREENHOUSE GASES INTO THE ATMOSPHERE, warming the planet in the process. . . . The Arctic is melting at an alarming rate. Arctic sea ice is 40 percent thinner than it was in the 1970s. . . . The 1990s were the warmest decade on record. The year 1998 set the all-time mark. This decade is on its way to setting a new standard, with a succession of scorchers. This isn’t a theory anymore. This is happening now.” This seems like a pretty clear statement that the claims of the skeptics are wrong. And if you say people live on a “parallel earth,” I think you’re signaling strongly to readers that they’re loons.

7

RickD 06.01.06 at 8:54 am

Re #3

“How many people are aware of the science at all, other than second or third hand?”

Quite a few, actually.

“Is the man made global warming thesis, whatever the truth, being promoted more like religion than science?”

No.

“Burn those skeptics!”

Grow up.

8

Steve LaBonne 06.01.06 at 8:54 am

Not strongly enough, William. The article uses most of its space to provide a soapbox for the loons, and the less than careful reader could easily come away with the impression that the passages you quote are just a statement of “one side” of the “debate”. The whole thing comes across as a typical instance of fatuous journalistic “balance”, no matter what “signals” Achenbach may have inteded to send.

9

trey 06.01.06 at 9:01 am

If you’re interested, Achenbach talks about why he chose to write this article and what the value of it is in this WaPo chat.

10

William Goodwin 06.01.06 at 9:03 am

Joel Achenbach is a writer, looking at what is essentially a political subculture, full of people who genuinely (at least in some sense) believe certain crazy things about global warming. He wrote a piece about these people, letting them speak in their own words, etc., while making clear early on that he thinks they’re wrong. What more do you expect him to do? He wasn’t writing an Op-Ed piece, he was writing a feature. Is it now unacceptable to look in detail at the beliefs of people who think crazy things? Should he have followed every quote with the statement: “This is wrong.”

The standards you’re holding Achenbach to here are absurd, and would make for boring, rote journalism. And this has nothing to do with balance. It has to do with the fact that it’s often interesting and enlightening to read about eccentrics and corrupt people and loons.

Finally, this “less than careful” reader business has got to go. Achenbach shouldn’t be worried about what less-than-careful readers are going to think of global warming after he’s done. He’s a writer. He should be worried about what will make for the most true — and, from his perspective, the most worthwhile — depiction of the world he’s writing about.

11

Steve LaBonne 06.01.06 at 9:11 am

Sorry, I don’t at all agree that he makes his point of view clear. You have to hack away at a good deal of “balance” undergrowth to discern that. It’s full of “balanced” horsepucky like this:

When I opine that he is incendiary, he answers: “Yes, I am incendiary. But the other side is just as incendiary. The etiquette of science has long ago been thrown out the window.”

In a media-saturated world, it’s hard to get anyone’s attention without cranking the volume.

Sorry, this both-sides-are-shrill crap is just misleading and dishonest writing. The more times I read that article the more I dislike it. Yes, I do indeed expect more than that and you should too.

12

JR 06.01.06 at 9:18 am

The real problem with Aschenbach’s piece is the context. It ran as the cover story in the Post’s weekly magazine, with a full picture of a leading skeptic and a cover headline to match. I’m a Post subscriber and I have never seen any story about global warming given the prominence that this article got. The story itself was reasonably balanced, but in the overall context of Post coverage it was wildly favorable to the so-called skeptics. Where are the two dozen magazine cover stories that say that global warming is happening and spelling out the consequences that could balance this fringe opposition movement?

13

John Emerson 06.01.06 at 9:26 am

What Steve Labonne said. Many readers will get the wrong impression, and that’s no accident. (The Times gets more careless readers than diligent readers, and even the careless readers of the Times are much sharper than the average citizen.)

William Goodwin has apparently come to believe that direct, non-Aesopian writing is impossible and undesirable, and that it would be illicit editorializing to write a news story portraying loony disinformation specialists unmistakably as dishonest loons. And Goodwin is also, almost certainly, more thoughtful and better informed than the average citizen. We really are in bad shape.

Another way to look at this is to look for defensive writing in Aschenbach’s piece. Where are the places that the author, hoping to ward off accusations of bias, softened what he wrote or changed the emphasis? The first line is obviously one of them, and that’s usually the most important line. And the last line of the piece can be properly understood only by a careful, well-informed reader.

Am I saying that Aschenbach should have spelled out his conclusions in direct, unmistakable language? Yes! What problem would there be with that?

14

William Goodwin 06.01.06 at 9:30 am

I realize you’re not convince-able on this issue, but Achenbach’s piece said, explicitly and high up in the piece, that global warming is happening, and that the consequences of it may very well be disastrous. The piece was not, context or no context, “wildly favorable” to the skeptics. It was a piece that showed that these skeptics exist, and that laid out what they believed, all the while making it clear that they are, in fact, a “fringe opposition movement” whose beliefs are rejected by the vast majority of people who’ve thought seriously about the question of global warming.

Let me put it differently. If Achenbach did a piece about the war in Iraq in which he included, high up in the piece, a paragraph that said, “For all its troubles, the war in Iraq has been a success. The removal of Saddam is an unqualifiedly good thign, etc.” but then went on to say, “There are these other people who live on a parallel earth. They think the war has been a debacle” and then quoted them at length on what a failure the war has been, would you really think the story was unfairly tilted toward the anti-war people? I doubt it. I assume you’d think Achenbach was setting up the anti-war people to look like fringe crazies. And that’s exactly what he did with the global warming skeptics.

15

John Emerson 06.01.06 at 9:48 am

William, neither the lead sentence nor the concluding sentence spelled out the conclusion. It would have been perfectly normal to have done so, in a healthy journalistic environment.

Nothing on the first page tells you anything bad about Bill Gray or his ideas. (In fairness to Aschenbach, the opening line may have been inserted by a copyeditor).

Aschenbach shouldn’t be worried about what less-than-careful readers are going to think of global warming after he’s done.

Why not? Journalism isn’t Chekhov or Henry James. You don’t let the reader figure out from subtle hints that the narrator is unreliable. You show the reader directly that the narrator is unreliable, by juxtaposing the facts and the falsehoods. that’s what good journalism should be.

But what I’m really saying is that Aschenbach was thinking about the less-than-careful reader. He (or the Times editors) wrote a deliberately mushy article so that the right-wing political commisars wouldn’t get mad. The commissars don’t care what well-informed people think. Bush wins elections withthe careless readers.

But since you’re impervious to reason, I’ll stop now.

16

dearieme 06.01.06 at 9:59 am

Subscribing to the Global Warming theology seems to me to be as silly as accepting that it would be a good idea to invade Iraq, or believing that Toni Blair really is a straight sort of a guy. Just not the sort of thing that intelligent people should fall for.

17

Steve LaBonne 06.01.06 at 10:04 am

Best comment on Achenbach’s style of “journalism” was made recently by Tom Tomorrow.
Dearime, why should anyone care how things “seem” to people who have no idea WTF they’re talking about?

18

JohnLopresti 06.01.06 at 10:07 am

The Washington Post exists in a political context in Washington, DC. There is a broad constituency for the naysayer tabloid tenor of the WaPo’s article on Gray. You may take a visit to the cooler tones of the discussion among the NASA scientists trying to understand the decades-long output from and design of multiple computer models of the complex interaction which is climate science at the following linked site. The first article is about summer reading of consumer oriented books some aligned closely to the Gray naysayers, some more thoughtful, all popularizers in approach.
The second linked article is for the math inclined among your readership, discussing how one recently prominent naysayer tuned the model to a starting point which would hide data.
The rest of the website needs exploration to discover who the brightest scientists are. A tour there will show climate change science is a fairly dispassionate field but is visited by a lot of writers and people interested in politics and other forms of eschatology. I will be glad to highlight a few articles, if some here would like; the two I selected for the links pretty much cover the range, from pedestrian to specialized. Enjoy.
John Lopresti
book review

designing the statistical model

19

JohnLopresti 06.01.06 at 10:11 am

The links evidently require typing without hypertext: here they are.
http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2006/05/my-review-of-books/ Which is a book review of three tomes.

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2006/05/how-red-are-my-proxies/ This is about designing the statistical model.

20

John Emerson 06.01.06 at 10:12 am

Oh, shit! — Dearieme.

21

P O'Neill 06.01.06 at 10:51 am

Note also that Jonah, in the post ridiculed below, had linked to the Achenbach piece and specifically the Bill Gray theses therein, without ever noting that Gray also says:

And Gray has no governor on his rhetoric. At one point during our meeting in Colorado he blurts out, “Gore believed in global warming almost as much as Hitler believed there was something wrong with the Jews.”

22

roger 06.01.06 at 11:08 am

Obviously, Aschenbach is right about one crucial thing: the ‘skeptics’ aka denialists are winning. That is, they are winning the actual battle of preventing green policies from being implemented in D.C.

Given that, I thought his portrayal of them was actually pretty naked and revealing. There are several strategies for destroying Exxon pseudo-science, and one of them is to show it as Aschenbach did. That is not the only strategy, of course, but dialogues in which people slap up ‘facts’ carved out of Wikipedia seems to mire global warming into an eternal he said/he said, which serves the Exxon policy of stasis. The quotes in that Aschenbach article are beautiful — they can be wrapped lovingly about the necks of the denialists for years to come. One article isn’t going to bring about some flash of revelation in the American mind, but I think Aschenbach’s article opens the gates for the next one and the one after.

23

John Emerson 06.01.06 at 11:32 am

The whole first page was seemingly favorable to Gray. That might have been good literature, but it was terrible journalism. As far as I know, journalism wants the lede and the conclusion to sum up the story.

24

rfs 06.01.06 at 11:35 am

I think “jr” has it right — the issue isn’t really the content of the article, but the context.

There’s an almost structural bias towards the novel and the contrarian in the whole news industry, and it’s one the right wing has learned to expliot: Newspapers aren’t interested in the “dog bites man” story, but rather the “man bites dog” stories. Even when they’re written and researched well and contextualize the story, they tend to publicize exceptions and make them seem more common or more legitimate than they are. Thus, you almost never see a news story that says “The best way to lose weight is eating a balanced diet of fewer calories and exercising regularly,” but rather “Does the bacon-only diet work? Experts weigh in.” Even if 99% of the experts say no, the fact of the story phrased in that way makes people think, “Hey, some experts now support the bacon-only diet! Sounds good.”

The global warming issue is similar — no editor wants a dry policy piece that confirms what most people already believe. They want something interesting that will catch readers’ eyes, and the way to do that is “man bites dog.” Thus the focus on the earth-is-flat crowd — it’s interesting because they run contrary to conventional wisdom. Even as Achenbach accurately describes the dynamic of the conflict — they don’t need to win, they just need to muddy the waters — and points out what loons these guys are, his piece by its very existence continues that dynamic. By his own standards, and probably most of ours, he’s been fair, done an accurate job debunking in many ways, but the problem is that in the big picture, that doesn’t matter. The overall effect of the story will probably be the opposite of its content, legitimizing the global warming sceptics.

25

rfs 06.01.06 at 11:40 am

Not only do they expliot it, they also exploit it. They’re sneaky that way.

26

John Emerson 06.01.06 at 11:52 am

Burying the lede, which this piece did, is a standard practice of bad journalism. A story with the lede buried and no clear conclusion is a bad piece unless the point of the piece is that no clear conclusion can be come to.

The Times and Post are afraid of organized winger protests and soften everything as much as they can in order to avoid controversy. It’s quite possible that Aschenbach’s piece was much better to begin with and was garbled by an editor.

The things I am talking about have been pretty well known for some time and I don’t understand the reason why people are denying that it’s happening or digging for a more complex explanation.

27

JR 06.01.06 at 12:02 pm

John Emerson- what you call ‘burying the lede’ is the standard format for Washington Post magazine articles. These are done on the cheap: the reporter gloms on to someone (local celebrity, teenage girl with terminal cancer, government whistleblower, man with disfiguring facial injury who is a top amateur ballroom dancer, whatever) – and follows that person around for a few days, then makes a few calls to fill in some stuff, types up the notes in a laconic, uninflected style, and calls the thing an article.

Having a point of view seems to be strictly forbidden.

28

William Goodwin 06.01.06 at 12:11 pm

John, you keep talking about the “lede” of Achenbach’s piece as if this were a news story. Nor is it a critical essay about the science of global warming. It’s a piece of feature journalism. Achenbach is trying to do something closer to Tom Wolfe or Didion or Michael Lewis than to a typical piece you’d see in the NYT. The point of the piece, again, is not to make the case for global warming. It’s to give readers a look at a strange subculture of true believers who think they’re right, and the rest of the world is wrong. This kind of piece doesn’t need — and in fact would probably be much worse with — a straight lede and a clear conclusion.

It’s not “Chekhov or Henry James”? Well, Achenbach isn’t as good a writer as Achenbach or Henry James, but the idea that magazine pieces can’t be literature, and shouldn’t aspire to literary values, is absurd, and should have been buried a long time ago. Achenbach is a writer. His only responsibility, again, is to write the best-crafted, truest story he can.

And as for that “first sentence,” that’s not Achenbach’s. That’s an editor’s.

29

John Emerson 06.01.06 at 12:34 pm

Sorry, the Post is a newspaper. Journalism can be good literature, but it has to be good journalism first.

I have already granted that the first sentence probably wasn’t Aschenbach’s. That just shifts the allocation of blame.

If the Post (thought it was the Times for awhile, sorry) has a long track record of hard-hitting, unambiguous writing about global warming skeptics, then this piece is less problematic. As far as I remember, they don’t. So I don’t think that they should have chosen to write a piece of fluff feature journalism instead of a news story or an editorial. (And there’s no reason why feature journalism can’t make its points clearly in so many words, and there’s no reason why feature journalism can’t have a definite editorial point of view.)

Among the things which “have got to go” or “which should have been buried a long time ago” I would include many of the kinds of things you’ve been saying. You have a rather imperious tone, considering that we have no way of knowing that you’re not just a dog on the internet.

30

JohnLopresti 06.01.06 at 12:42 pm

Washington Post is the place to find some worthwhile Congressional Quarterly’s firstrate rendering of hearing transcripts, and WaPo assures that archive remains free, unlike some other prominent publishers who place journalism behind a paywall promptly within a few days of first publication. Though the original commentary, above, is about the article in this instance rather than the vehicle for its promulgation. WaPo does all kinds of worthwhile things. When the formal study group comprised of career civil rights lawyers at the Department of Justice evaluated voter rights violations in the 2003 TX regerrymander and found Voting Rights Act noncompliance, that report, a substantial 60 pages first surfaced to the light of day as a link on the WaPo site in 2005, after the case was adjudicated in the district court, but, significantly, prior to the case’s argument in the Supreme Court. WaPo helps some worthwhile efforts by its editorial policies. Now congress is revisiting portions of VRA, and although SCOTUS’ opinion has yet to issue forth, the circumstances surrounding suppression of that internal DoJ civil rights study group’s report has to weigh in the balance of deliberations for some senators. We need not laud the WaPo excessively here, but they are a newspaper of merit; and are trying like many news organs to adapt to the new e-media, a presence which they seem to be developing well. I have noticed, too, as some commenters stated, above, similarities in US press in these times, compared to a certain dictatorship in western Europe whose press I used to read at the time the constitutional democracy was re-entering upon the scene. In that land, the economists had a daily newspaper containing some of the most insightful analysis available, but the average kiosk sold only the brand-x newspapers. Economists often are first to recognize the changes in the world order. I think a similar responsibility and ability to communicate is now evident in the science community, particularly on the global climate change topic.

31

Something Polish 06.01.06 at 12:56 pm

Shame on Achenbach for crafting such a long-winded feature instead of writing in simple, easily digested bullet points.

32

John Emerson 06.01.06 at 12:58 pm

Less heavy-handed irony would be more effective, Mr. polish.

33

BigMacAttack 06.01.06 at 1:11 pm

Damn the Post for failing to promote John Emerson’s POV in the way he wants it promoted.

Damn them all to hell! When will they learn! When will we all learn!

I thought it was nicely done and effective. It’s clear message was look at the contrarian loons. It might not have hit people over the head until they crumbled to the ground moaning ahhhh global warming the horror, the horror, but it made it’s point effectively.

It wasn’t my favorite mode of persuasion but was most probably effective.

34

Steve LaBonne 06.01.06 at 1:16 pm

but was most probably effective.

BMA, you are very naive. Or rather, it was effective all right- in bolstering the visibility of the “sceptics” and thus keeping alive the phony “controversy” so the brain-dead press can keep “covering” it. For a biologist this is deja vu, the IDiots have gotten much the same helping hand from those wonderful “journalists”.

35

John Emerson 06.01.06 at 1:18 pm

Big Mac, did you actually read what I wrote? Could you consider responding to what I wrote?

What the Post failed to promote effectively enough was the fact that these people are wrong and mostly dishonest. As I pointed out in detail, they made it quite easy for someone to miss the point.

36

BigMacAttack 06.01.06 at 1:55 pm

John Emerson,

‘Big Mac, did you actually read what I wrote? Could you consider responding to what I wrote?’

Maybe better than you.

‘If the Post (thought it was the Times for awhile, sorry) has a long track record of hard-hitting, unambiguous writing about global warming skeptics, then this piece is less problematic. As far as I remember, they don’t. So I don’t think that they should have chosen to write a piece of fluff feature journalism instead of a news story or an editorial.’

Quite clearly what you are objecting to is the context and general nature of the Post’s coverage of global warming.

If that context and nature was different you wouldn’t have a problem with the piece. That is a pretty fair paraphrase of the above.

‘What the Post failed to promote effectively enough was the fact that these people are wrong and mostly dishonest. As I pointed out in detail, they made it quite easy for someone to miss the point.’

Again, what you are objecting to is that the Post did not promote your POV. And while my general POV on global warming is probably closer to yours than to the skeptics, I am quite aware that the truth of global warming is a matter of a degree of probability within a large range. Boring.

And while people like Gray and Lindz might be wrong they hardly seem genuinely dishonest. Even the CEI people came across as more extremely enthusiastic than flat out liars.

It was a well done piece. Screaming liar, liar, liar or acting like the voice of authority isn’t generally effective expect for firing up the already converted.

And while I kinda think more detail about the chief claims of skeptics, and how they are panning out might have helped the article, the article didn’t totally avoid those things.

Gray’s I am working on a paper came across as kinda of sad.

I think most people who read features of this type skim pretty extensively, if not thoroughly, and the article did a good job painting the chief critics of global warming as contrarian loons and/or nutty libertarians.

You start out sympathizing with the critics. Even admiring their works. That only makes the rug pull as the article goes on more effective.

Again not necessarily my cup of tea but a good cup of tea.

37

Steve LaBonne 06.01.06 at 2:03 pm

The existence of one or two guys like Lindzen is just background noise. People (especailly reporters)who don’t understand that have no clue how science works. There’s virtually never 100% agreement about ANYTHING; there’s always an outlier somewhere, generally somebody who simply likes to disagree with the consensus just for the sake of being a maverick, which is how Lindzen is often described (though he in fact has at least the appearance of some conflicts of interest as well.
The tea in that article is rancid, BMA.

38

Christopher M 06.01.06 at 2:09 pm

Achenbach discussed the piece quite a bit with Robert Wright on bloggingheads.tv (video link) (before it came out).

39

John P 06.01.06 at 2:11 pm

I’m a scientist (PhD, physics) and a firm believer that global climate change (I prefer this term to global warming) is real. I like the piece. Kudos to Mr. Achenbach for giving us some insight into the nature of the leading denialists. We could use more journalism like this. Read the chat. Achenbach clearly sympathizes with the mainstream scientific view that anthropogenic climate change is real. I agree with William Goodwin.

If I boil down what Emerson and Labonne are saying, it seems to come to “stupid people will read the article, and they won’t get it.” Please. I don’t think Achenbach (or any writer) should tailor his writing to the lowest common denominator. The criticism I am reading here seems misdirected.

40

John Emerson 06.01.06 at 2:21 pm

“Again, what you are objecting to is that the Post did not promote your POV.”

No, Big Mac. The Post failed to clearly state the actual truth of the situation. I happen to accept the actual truth of the situation, but that does not make the truth “my POV”.

I wasn’t talking about screaming “liar” or anything else. I was talking about stating the facts in a clear, intelligible way.

If the fact of global warming were almost universally accepted, and these people were being treated tongue in cheek like flat-earthers, the article would be amusing and no big deal. But global warming is still controversial, though it shouldn’t be. The battle hasn’t been won.

Where controversial claims are false they should be juxtaposed to the truth. That seems like common sense to me, but journalists no longer work that way.

41

nick s 06.01.06 at 2:24 pm

Well, it’s better than Jodi Wilgoren’s canoe ride up the Grand Canyon with people who say it was created by the Great Flood.

It’s an interesting mode: present the ‘sceptics’ as if they are the people who have to make a positive case rather than just spewing out chaff against the massive scientific consensus.

Here’s the problem: these people have no sense of shame. They will not shut up. They will lie for money about something else once they receive the cheque, and claim that any critical treatment is simply ‘librul meedja bias’. How do you deal with such hackery? Sticks?

42

William Goodwin 06.01.06 at 2:34 pm

I’m glad John used the word “commissars” first, because it certainly has been on my mind throughout this discussion, as John and Steve berate Achenbach for not toeing the right political line, not in terms of the substance (no one reading that article could doubt that Achenbach believes global warming is real — “This is not theory. It’s happening.” — and that its effects are serious and dangerous) but the style and the focus. You sound like Mike Gold, telling writers that if they’re not writing socialist realism they’re enemies of the proletariat: “Journalism can be good literature, but it has to be journalism first.” Don’t write about “background noise.” Don’t do “fluff feature journalism.” Make sure you use a blunt instrument so that everyone knows at every moment who’s wearing the black hats. What an impoverished and ponderous view of journalism and writing you’re offering up here.

The irony of all this is that, as John’s original post suggests, and as my reaction and those of a lot of the people commenting here suggest, Achenbach’s article actually did an excellent job of discrediting the people he was writing about. And yes, you probably had to read the entire article to get that. But that’s who real writers write for, not the “less careful” readers who are going to skim.

43

William Goodwin 06.01.06 at 2:39 pm

One last thing, to repeat myself:

John says that Achenbach did not “clearly state the actual truth of the situation.” This is what Achenbach wrote about global warming:

“Human beings are pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, warming the planet in the process. . . . The Arctic is melting at an alarming rate. Arctic sea ice is 40 percent thinner than it was in the 1970s. . . . The 1990s were the warmest decade on record. The year 1998 set the all-time mark. This decade is on its way to setting a new standard, with a succession of scorchers. This isn’t a theory anymore. This is happening now.”

What was the truth about about global warming that he failed to state clearly?

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John Emerson 06.01.06 at 2:48 pm

William, on the DeLong thread someone just reported that all of his global-warming-denier friends have forwarded him the article. You are just wrong that the article makes an effective case against the deniers. It’s only effective with people who already know the truth, and that’s what Aesopian language is all about. The truth shouldn’t be a coded mess age, it should be directly stated.

You’re getting worse and worse. Mike Gold was a literary critic writing about novels. As I’ve clearly explained and you should have understood by now, I’m talking about non-fiction journalism about factual topics which have major political importance. I like Chekhov and Henry James fine, but they are not models for political journalism. You’re swinging wildly and seem to be trying to insult me.

Russia’s Aesopian writers during the Czarist period wrote that way because that’s the only way they could get past the censor. Many of them would rather have written directly. To a degree that may be true of some of today’s writers, though in many cases not speaking the truth directly seems to have become second nature.

Perhaps in Czarist Russia a readership developed which only wanted to read Aesopian writing, and were offended by direct statements of fact. I don’t really know. But (judging by Goodwin’s crude smears of direct writing) such an audience apparently exists today.

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John Emerson 06.01.06 at 2:52 pm

Goodwin has forced a correction on me. Achenbach stated the truth of the situation, but he buried it. The whole first internet page was really quite friendly to Gray. The introduction was non-committal. The coclusion was non-committal. The truth was buried in there somewhere, but the article wasn’t organized around the truth.

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Steve LaBonne 06.01.06 at 3:06 pm

William, I did no such thing (“toeing the right political line”). You are offically an ass. The problem, as both John and I have repeatedly and clearly stated, is that he buried the lede under a mound of superficially sympathetic coverage of people who are in fact talking complete rubbish. You seem to have serious reading comprehension problems since you have repeatedly avoided addressing this simple point. It is quite possible to seriously mislead while technically telling the truth, which is exactly what the article does.

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Yentz Mahogany 06.01.06 at 3:07 pm

Uh, I think John is maligning Rick Lindzen unfairly, to say the least. Actually, I came away from the article with respect for Lindzen. Moreover, I was thoroughly unimpressed with Held, whose motivational arguments and characterizations are irritating to any unbiased person trying to judge the matter.

Moreover, I didn’t see enough in the article to rebuff the global “cycles” hypothesis. And this is the key point that I really care about. The closest thing to a refutation was the point about how the cycles hypothesis, for Gray, was based on observations of temperature increases in a local area as opposed to a global one, and global mean temperatures are more salient. But would every “cycles” theorist put all their money on the local/Atlantic bet?

I don’t honestly believe in the cycles theory, mind you, or at least I think it (at best) proposes a explanation for factors which compound humanity’s own mistakes. Indeed, it’s just far too much of a coincidence that the industrial revolution coincided with average increase in temperature. But as a reasonable amateur, I can at least see the surface plausibility of the cycles theory, and desire to understand if and why it is wrong. This article seemed elusive on the matter, leaving me no better off than when I started.

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Eli Rabett 06.01.06 at 3:07 pm

Think Steven Colbert.

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John Emerson 06.01.06 at 3:14 pm

One thing about the cycles theory — it’s possible that global warming is actually much worse than it seems, because the cycle is **damping** warming at the moment. Cycle theorists use the cycles opportunistically to support their point, but it’s quite possible that once the cycles are considered the skeptics position will be even worse.

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William Goodwin 06.01.06 at 3:19 pm

John, you wrote that I was “impervious to reason.” And you said Achenbach wrote the piece he did “so that the right-wing political commissars wouldn’t get mad.” It’s not clear to me you’re in a position to complain about being insulted.

Regardless, I’ll just say again what I said earlier: Achenbach didn’t bury the truth (or the lede) in his piece, because his piece wasn’t about whether or not global warming is real. He states clearly, and unequivocally, that it’s real. But he’s writing about this small group of fanatics who think that it isn’t, about their mania, their paranoia, their flights of fancy, etc. And that’s what his lede and his conclusion should have been about, as indeed they were.

You’re saying Achenbach did write the truth, he just didn’t write it often enough or in the right places in his story to satisfy you. Maybe he can send you his next piece in advance to make sure it toes the correct line.

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John Emerson 06.01.06 at 3:27 pm

I said you were impervious to reason because you had earlier said “I realize you’re not convinceable on this issue”, which I thought was a bit huffy. So I saw you and raised you a bit.

At this point in the game, Achenbach should not have written a fluffy personality piece about the global warming deniers, any more than he should write a fluffy personality piece about, say, the CCC (the southern neo-segregationist group). The global warming issue is a live one, and while it is, the central issue should be part of the story. And this is really not a two-sided issue any more.

Your sarcasm is becoming Mike Goldish.

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William Goodwin 06.01.06 at 3:38 pm

John, you’ve now compared Bill Gray and Lindzen to racists and Holocaust deniers (over on Brad’s board). Do you actually think these people are evil, in the way that racists and Nazis are? (If you want to argue that the CEI people are, I wouldn’t quibble.) Are they that far outside the moral pale that you can’t write about them using any tone other than straight condemnation?

You keep using the word “fluffy,” but I don’t think Achenbach’s piece is fluffy. I don’t think it’s a great piece of journalism, but I think it is a serious portrait of people living on the fringes of a community, people who are so convinced they’re right and everyone else is wrong that they are no longer able to look at the evidence. There are lots of people, even now, who don’t believe in global warming. Understanding where they’re coming from is a valuable, and interesting, project.

As for the Holocaust denier question, there actually is an excellent example of precisely the kind of project you think would be inconceivable: Errol Morris’ documentary “Mr. Death.”

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John Emerson 06.01.06 at 3:53 pm

Holocaust deniers are saying things about a weighty issue which are clearly false. That’s the comparison. Few of them admit to being racist, and I did not accuse anyone of being racist. I have accused certain people of saying things that are clearly false about a weighty issue, and I have said that stories about them should be organized around the falsehood of what they say.

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William Goodwin 06.01.06 at 4:11 pm

Well, I think that comment captures the difference in our perspectives well. You think the stories should be organized around the falsehood of what they say. I think the stories should be organized around what will make for the most compelling, and true, picture of the people Achenbach is writing about. They do not think that what they’re saying is “clearly false,” so simply reiterating that it’s false doesn’t really help us understand them or what they’re thinking.

(The “racists” I was referring to, by the way, were the members of the CCC, to whom you also compared Lindzen and Gray.)

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jlw 06.01.06 at 4:24 pm

I’m loathe to disagree with John Emerson, but I gotta say that after reading about half of the article in question, I come down on the side of it effectively skewering the denialists. I mean, if you can get someone on the record as saying, “Wilderness is the least natural part of this planet,” you’ve pretty much sunk their credibility.

Now, that said, some people might well misunderstand what’s going on in the piece–and breaking the piece on the website certainly doesn’t help in that regard. But you can’t fault Achenbach for that. He was writing for a specific venue, the Sunday magazine. But I don’t find getting hung up on that break, or on how he allows himself the time to set the scene before allowing Gray and others to discredit themselves, very convincing. And most people who come to the article with no strong conviction will find, I believe, that the denialists are shown here to be nuts.

Could stupid people get the wrong idea? Sure. But most stupid people are going to skip over this article entirely and flip to the Family Circus. Could skeptics find comfort in this article? Sure, but they seem able to convince themselves again and again that shit on a plate is sirloin.

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John Emerson 06.01.06 at 4:29 pm

I think that I am correct that many people will come away from the piece with a more favorable view of the denier. (Shinypenny on the DeLong thread: “Personal anecdote: every single global warming denier I know e-mailed me a copy”.) This is my main point, and it is a valid point. To say that Achenbach is not to blame, and that the readers are to blame, is evasive. Achenbach made their mistake easier, when he could have made it almost impossible. And in any case, the whole point about Aesopian writing is that it’s not meant to be understood by everyone.

Sure, it was a feature article, but a feature article could have been written which also made the point I wanted to see made. And sure, it’s a “human-interest story”, but a human interest story could have been written which did **not** increase sympathy toward the poor skeptics who lost their grants, and which did not subordinate the question of truth.

My second point is that Achenbach’s mushiness is pervasive in journalism, including the most-respected publications, and that it is the result of a deliberate policy of trying to placate the hard right. And I think that I’m right about that one too. The norm of American journalism is timidity about anything that offends the right, and that’s become second nature to most reporters and many readers.

There’s nothing at all wrong with the clear, direct statement of unnuanced truth.

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William Goodwin 06.01.06 at 5:27 pm

John, you have no evidence for either of your points when it comes to Achenbach’s article. You’re just rehashing your familiar critique of the mainstream media, asserting as truth — there’s a “deliberate policy to placate the hard right” — that which is purely supposition, and happily caricaturing anyone writing for a popular news outlet as a weak-willed coward in thrall to the right. There’s no reason to trust your reading of Achenbach’s article, because no matter what piece in the mainstream media you read, you always reach the same conclusion: the author is a sell-out.

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John Emerson 06.01.06 at 6:02 pm

If there were a balance in the media between the various sorts of articles, you would be right. But there isn’t. There are lots of nuanced and evasive articles, and quite a few dishonest articles, and very few forthright articles.

My argument is based on the overall state of the media, and not on access to any information specifically about Achenbach except the article.

You are correct that I assume media intimidation of the by the hard right as a starting point. It’s true and well-known and I give my audience her credit for being well-informed and undeluded.

My claim is that while global warning is a live issue, and it is now, one of the organizing themes of an article about global warming sceptics should be **the truth (or otherwise) of what they are saying.** I do not think that this makes me a Stalinist.

I also think that a good article about the skeptics would anger the hard right, and that Achenbach and/or the Post was careful not to do this. There’s a bit of conjecture there, but that’s the most reasonable explanation.

I am confident that many readers come away from the article with an unduly positive view of the skeptics, and that this is because of the poor (probably deliberately poor) organization of the article, which buried key information in the middle (a very common tactic).

I do not know or care at all about Achenbach as a person or about his motives. I’m talking about the article. I have granted the possibility that an editor might have butchered the article.

The reason I say the same thing over and over again is because it doesn’t stop being true.

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aaron 06.01.06 at 11:08 pm

The article does give a positive view of the skeptics, and rightfully so. The skeptics are prone to making so off the wall comments and exageration, but the substance of their of most of their objective critiques is good. They mostly aren’t skeptical of GW, they’re skeptical of whether it will trump natural variation and over commiting ourselve to dealing with one aspect of climate change.

Climate change is going to happen no matter what we do. We have no idea what that change will be. It make much more sense to take a measured aproach and focus on adaptability for both potential warming and cooling.

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Christopher Allbritton 06.02.06 at 8:01 am

I wonder how many people arguing on this board are journalists. I am. So I’ll give a little “argument by authority” of my own.

1. Anyone with a brain will read these skeptics as loons. And to worry that Achenbach should state that their loons, plain and true (or that they’re lying or whatever) is, frankly, elitist. “Oh, poor stupid readers won’t know how to interpret this.” Editors do this all the time and I keep yelling at mine to give the reader more credit.

2. What should Achenbach say, exactly, that he didn’t? That Gray et al. are crazy? Lying? Wrong? He did say they’re wrong. But if he said they were lying or crazy, he’d have real libel issue on his hand. You don’t think someone like Gray wouldn’t sue if Achenbach wrote, “For all his charm, Gray is wrong, a little nuts and possibly in this for material gain”? You complain about the mushiness of modern journalism and that everyone who works for the mainstream press is in thrall to “the right.” We want to be right, we don’t want to get sued. It’s a delicate balance and non-journalists should keep that in mind some time.

3. William’s right. This is a feature piece in the magazine, not the newspaper with an old-skool inverted pyramid leade. It requires a little more work. God forbid the write respect the reader enough to enlighten, entertain, inform and even challenge him a little.

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John Emerson 06.02.06 at 8:11 am

Ooooooooooooooooeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!

I think the thread is dead. You killed it, Aaron!

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shinypenny 06.02.06 at 11:14 am

1. Anyone with a brain will read these skeptics as loons.

No offense, Mr. Allbritton, but those who are approaching this debate with a “global warming has no basis in fact” frame* will come away from that article with nothing more than facts from real live scientists that “global warming is a hoax”. Mr. Emerson is correct that the battle has not yet been won in this country. People like my father and brother (a doctor and a lawyer respectively, so not entirely stupid) are entrenched in their positions, and giving so much apparently non-critical column space to global warming deniers just has the effect of digging them in deeper (and making my efforts to convince them otherwise much harder).

* Such as my right-libertarian father and brother, to name just two of the people who e-mailed me about the piece. The others were my boss, another libertarian friend, and a Republican co-worker.

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Pat Joseph 06.02.06 at 12:48 pm

This discussion, fascinating as it is, reminds me of something Achenbach put in his article. He wrote:

Let us be honest about the intellectual culture of America in general: It has become almost impossible to have an intelligent discussion about anything. Everything is war now. … when something like climate change comes up, the first thing people want to know is, whose side are you on?”

It seems to me that that’s exactly what Emerson and Labonne are demanding to know in reading the piece. They’re upset that Achenbach buried the lede because it made answering that question more difficult.

I’ll show my cards now and say that I greatly appreciated the article. I would think that anyone who was genuinely concerned about global warming would want some insight into the contrarian culture and mindset. That’s what Achenbach’s feature delivered and he did it in a way that managed to be both critical and sympathetic. He gave his subjects plenty of rope to hang themselves with (e.g., “Wilderness is the least natural part of this planet!”), but didn’t feel obliged to come out and declare sides. Why should he?

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John Emerson 06.02.06 at 3:29 pm

I’ve said why, Christopher. Achenbach has written a subtle, nuanced, two-tier story which makes intelligent people happy without offending stupid, wrong-headed people. Everyone’s happy, including people who depend on the votes of the stupid worng-headed misinformed people. But everyone should not be happy.

It’s already been reported that skeptics are emailing this around as supportative of their position.

Please don’t call me an elitist, and I won’t call you…. something worse. That was a silly thing to say. There really are a lot of stupid, dishonest people out there, and this country is suffering terribly from that fact.

In the world of today, being a professional journalist is not something to brag about. Many professional journalist seem to take pride in how much they make for doing bad work.

“Why should [Aschenbach] declare sides?” Because one side was clearly wrong, but many readers don’t know that.

What Aschenbach said was that it’s hard to have an intelligent argument about anything in this polarized country. What he meant, in this case, was that if he told the truth he would be attacked by a mob of fanatics. So he nuanced what he said in order to avoid attacks. And now he’s being attacked by the less-fearsome who wanted an explicit statement of the truth. There’s really no parity there, and I hope that n one thinks that there is.

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John Emerson 06.02.06 at 3:29 pm

“the less-fearsome people”

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CT 06.02.06 at 3:55 pm

So, Mr. Achenbach’s article is to be condemned because it lacks the clear and concise statements of opinion corresponding with John Emerson’s point of view. That about sums it up. Here’s a hint, John: Get your own column at a regional newspaper and you can state your opinion clearly and concisely. You don’t have to suffer the nuanced, “balanced,” even humorous prose of other writers. Fair enough?

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John Emerson 06.02.06 at 7:09 pm

This is not a POV thing, ct. Prominently stating the facts of an important question in a story touching on that question is not POV. It’s journalism, and you’re an idiot.

It would have been very easy to do that without harming the piece in any way or changing it much at all, but it was not done because the media are intimidated and American journalism is spineless by choice.

As I’ve said several times, deniers believe that this piece makes them look good, and for a lot of Americans it does.

I am apparently closer to certain blocs of the American electorate than anyone else here except shinypenny. Most people here don’t know anyone who would misread this piece, but lots of people I know would. So you are finer people than I am! (And I am a snob, too — thank you Chris).

But Bush gets elected by the people I know (the famous whim voters, usually called swing voters), and for the Bush people there’s nothing to complain about in Achenbach’s piece (though they might complain anyway, just on general principles).

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Tim Curtin 06.03.06 at 6:13 am

According to JQ, “Richard Lindzen, prominent MIT climate scientist, is an irresponsible contrarian, who’s prepared to defend an implausible position on the off chance of being right when everyone else is wrong”.
This could with equal justice read:
“John Quiggin, prominent University of Queensland non-climate scientist, is an irresponsible contrarian, who’s prepared to defend an implausible position on the off chance of being right when everyone else is wrong”
Certainly attempts by me to prove that the latter is the case have been disbarred from said JQ’s blog and his mate Tim Lambert’s Deltoid, on the grounds of being “personal attacks”. What is JQ’s comment on RL then?

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John Emerson 06.03.06 at 8:30 am

Go piss up a rope, tim.

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Jon H 06.03.06 at 3:55 pm

john emerson writes: “It would have been perfectly normal to have done so, in a healthy journalistic environment.”

Are you aware that Achenbach has long been the Washington Post’s kinda-casual kinda funny-like-Dave Barry columnist?

This is a long-standing style he’s had. He’s not Walter Pincus, or even Steno Sue, and as far as I know has no pretensions to that kind or level of journalism.

Apparently, he’s doing some more serious pieces, but look where it is – in the Magazine. Which is where you get wordier stories, arranged more elaborately than a 500 word piece about a robbery, with subsections with their own headings and all that fancy-shmancy stuff.

I dunno, I think people are making a bit of a category error here. You may prefer a different article, but I find it difficult to complain about a story which quite explicitly paints the naysayers as loons living in a world which is not the real one.

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Jon H 06.03.06 at 3:56 pm

” Because one side was clearly wrong, but many readers don’t know that.”

I think clearly saying they are talking about an Earth which is not the real one is a pretty clear statement that they’re wrong.

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Jon H 06.03.06 at 4:04 pm

John emerson writes: “William, neither the lead sentence nor the concluding sentence spelled out the conclusion. It would have been perfectly normal to have done so, in a healthy journalistic environment.”

Only if you’re using a specific rigid definition of journalistic writing style.

There are other perfectly acceptable styles of writing which are not out of bounds merely because they happen to be published in a newspaper.

“Nothing on the first page tells you anything bad about Bill Gray or his ideas. (In fairness to Aschenbach, the opening line may have been inserted by a copyeditor).”

I’m guessing Achenbach has little to say about where the page breaks fall. They were probably different on the web and in print.

Further, it seems entirely acceptable in a longer piece to use the first portion to set the stage for the reader and as a hook so that they bother reading onward to the second page.

Half the time these days, longer-format stories start with two pages of photography and a single paragraph hook that conveys little or no definitive information. Nothing substantive is found until page 3.

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Jon H 06.03.06 at 4:14 pm

john emerson writes: “My claim is that while global warning is a live issue, and it is now, one of the organizing themes of an article about global warming sceptics should be the truth (or otherwise) of what they are saying.”

So is it your contention that when the story talks about parallel earths, Achenbach is saying there really are parallel earths, and not in fact saying that the skeptics describe a non-real earth and therefore they are wrong?

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Jon H 06.03.06 at 4:23 pm

John emerson writes: “William, on the DeLong thread someone just reported that all of his global-warming-denier friends have forwarded him the article.”

These people are stupid and can’t read.

If Achenbach had written the story you wanted, they probably wouldn’t have believed it, probably wouldn’t have read it, or would *still* have thought it supported their case and mailed it around.

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Seth Edenbaum 06.04.06 at 12:00 pm

All communication should be ideological.
“Form” is only used to carry “content.”
Writers should never leave anything to the imagination:
the reader should never be allowed to make any decisions for himself (to allow that would be betrayal.)

When DeLong is right he’s right. Even I’ll admit that, and he’s banned my comments. But he understands interpersonal communication about as well as an android, and when he’s wrong his head goes so far up his ass it’s back on top of his head.

And I’ll add one more thing to the list above, since I just read another stupid review of Dennett’s stupid book on religion:

Religious logic is nonsense (so religion serves no logical function)
Lets forget that sciptural interpretation is the origin of the rule of law.
Ask a lawyer or a historian if the constitution either a product or an example of scientific thought.

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Seth Edenbaum 06.04.06 at 2:22 pm

“..back on top of his neck.”
It’s still illogical, but at least it makes sense.

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