It was bound to happen. As many predicted, Steven Koonin’s attempt to occupy the middle ground on climate has led to a campaign to discredit the messenger rather than answer the message. We were not surprised to have various trolls grunting and waving rhetorical clubs about. But Facebook also began pillorying him as a fool and a liar, via some “fact checkers” at ClimateFeedback.org who might better be described as “fact stoppers”, but Facebook relies on them to trigger content restrictions. When the Wall Street Journal reviewed Koonin’s book prior to its publication, this small band of climate warriors leaped into action based on the review to declare the book a pile of rubbish, and Facebook on that basis made a point of directing its vast audience to Koonin’s critics rather than his book. Which, the Journal review noted, “is no polemic. It’s a plea for understanding how scientists extract clarity from complexity. And, as Mr. Koonin makes clear, few areas of science are as complex and multidisciplinary as the planet’s climate.” Sadly, few areas are as simple and nasty as climate alarmism.
Andy May reports that Amazon also briefly directed interested buyers not to Koonin’s book but only to his critics, though “hopefully it was a simple programming error and not attempted suppression by a rogue employee.”
Koonin himself responded to the Climate Feedback/Facebook one-two by saying “Facebook’s “fact checkers” criticized what they imagined I wrote based on a 900-word review, rather than what I did write in a book of more than 75,000 words. They’re no better than trolls who pan political adversaries’ books on Amazon without bothering to read them. It’s not the behavior of serious scientists, and it demonstrates the need for a book like ‘Unsettled.’”
It would be interesting to know how much of this Koonin anticipated. Most of it, it would appear; he’s a big boy who did not just fall off a turnip truck and has been following the public as well as the scientific debate long enough to know how ugly it is. But we expect that experiencing it in person is at least slightly disheartening. The Journal even got a bit depressed, saying “If reviewers can’t engage thoughtful if provocative books even by leading scientists without their pieces being throttled on social media, then those books won’t sell.” We think they will. Facebook has power, but like most corporations its influence depends primarily on reflecting popular desires, base or noble. This kind of conduct will cost it audience members, and if the marketplace moved rapidly even in 1950, the social media marketplace moves at lightning speed. Caveat censor.
The Washington Post, it is worth noting, published a balanced, even favourable column by Mark Thiessen on Koonin and his book on May 14. That piece starts by quoting John Kerry, but only to set up this putdown: “Kerry is right about one thing: He is not a scientist. So here are a few climate facts that Kerry failed to mention in his testimony, marshaled by one of the Obama administration’s top scientists, Steven E. Koonin.” Followed by Koonin’s debunking of an increase in heat waves, hurricanes, tornadoes, sea level rise or famine.
Thiessen wraps up with “Mankind has adapted to climate change before, and we’ll do it again — the doomsaying of the climate alarmists notwithstanding.” To which we add that humankind has also adapted to trendy hysteria before, and we’ll do it again. Indeed the breaking point of this particular fever may be much closer than people suspect, and the growing shrillness of the alarmists may reflect a degree of desperation.
The New York Post also covered Koonin favourably. It is simply not going to be possible to hide him forever, no matter how much mud is employed in the attempt.
Revealingly, Climate Feedback’s hatchet job contained links to its own criticisms of Koonin but not to the actual review. And as the WSJ wrote in its own editorial response, these “fact checks” are for the most part arguments against the unwelcome implications of Koonin’s book rather than attempts to expose error or fraud. Or elevates vague conjecture over accurate claim; for instance “The fact-check on the statement that ‘global crop yields are rising, not falling’ retorts that ‘while global crop yields are rising, this does not constitute evidence that climate change is not adversely affecting agriculture.’ OK, but that’s an argument, not a fact-check. By the way, would articles that imply declining crop yields be slapped with warning labels? We doubt it.”
In her own review of Koonin’s book, Judith Curry, another scientist dismayed by the one-sided shrillness of the zealots and with painful personal experience of it, notes that “In this book, Koonin comes across as very honest and trustworthy, and genuinely concerned about the integrity of climate science and the research process. A welcome contrast to the way Michael Mann comes across.”
The same could certainly be said of Ben Santer’s hatchet job for the Union of Concerned Scientists, called “Climate Denialism Has No Place at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory”, saying “Professor Koonin is not a climate scientist. I am.” And winding up that because Livermore invited Koonin to give a talk, Santer “decided that I will no longer have any affiliation with LLNL after I retire on September 30, 2021.” Without actually, you know, quitting in mid-pension or anything. Or wanting smart people to hear both sides of a story.
Then there’s Peter Gleick’s savage Tweet “Koonin chose many years ago to be a climate contrarian, though he’s not a #climate scientist. In 2014 he ran a failed “red team/blue team” debate: science won. But he’s closed his mind. Now he’s a darling of RW climate deniers. This reflects badly on LLNL.” Gleick, incidentally, has a “Ph.D. in Energy and Resources from the University of California, Berkeley, with a focus on hydroclimatology.” So if Koonin’s not a climate scientist, neither are you, buddy. Though Koonin lacks Gleick’s distinction of having fraudulently obtained documents to further his cause, specifically by contacting the Heartland Institute impersonating one of their board members, one of many things for which Michael Shellenberger took him severely to task. Meanwhile Ben Santer does have a PhD in “Climatology” from the CRU at the UEA, the people who brought you Climategate.
Curry quotes another review, from Forbes, that says “Mr. Koonin argues not against current climate science but that what the media and politicians and activists say about climate science has drifted so far out of touch with the actual science as to be absurdly, demonstrably false” and that “One of the key contributions of Koonin’s book is its detailed account of how the climate change message gets distorted as it goes through successive filters as the research literature gets converted to assessment reports and report summaries which are then subject to alarmist and apocalyptic media coverage and politicians’ soundbites.”
On the subject of credentials that review also observes, persuasively we think, that “Steve Koonin is more than eminently qualified in climate science. He has degrees from Caltech and MIT; he is an author of over 200 academic papers; he was previously provost at Caltech and chief scientist for BP. Koonin, in short, is a brilliant physicist who worked and interacted with his colleague at Caltech, Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century.” And then it makes an observation we wish were true: “what sets Koonin apart from other prominent climate sceptics are not his impeccable credentials. Happer and Lindzen have equally impressive CVs. But Koonin will be harder to vilify and ‘cancel’ as other sceptics have been… because he was appointed as Senate-confirmed Under Secretary for Science under the Obama administration serving from May 19, 2009, to November 18, 2011.”
Given that he has been tarred with the same brush as the others, the question becomes: If one cannot even object to the distortions without being subjected to them, what is left of the integrity of the process? Or, more bluntly, what are the alarmists so afraid of that they cannot ever just address an argument squarely?