Thursday, December 12, 2019

On Greta Thunberg: A Letter to my Non-Western Friends

Dear non-Western friends,

first of all, let me tell you that I understand your perplexity about Greta Thunberg. I understand how you see this latest stunt of the Western Media of naming her "Person of the Year." From your viewpoint, it looks just like another trick of the West, one among many. And I understand that it makes you even more suspicious that the whole story of climate change is nothing but a hoax created by the Western Empire to maintain its grip on the whole planet.

Yes, I understand. But I would like to ask you to make an effort to understand us, the Westerners. You see, sometimes I have a feeling that one of the characteristics of Hell could be that the people who are in it don't realize that they are in Hell. It would be truly wicked, but it was a Western poet, Baudelaire, who said that the best trick of the devil is to convince you that he doesn't exist. So, if Hell is a place where you are told lies about everything, including that you are not in it, then we Westerners are truly living in Hell, at least a certain kind of hell.

It is not just lies, it is the kind of lies. The Western media have evolved into a machine for manufacturing fear and hatred. Anyone, any group, any belief, can be destroyed by this machine. And you cannot do much to fight back. If you doubt the official narration, you are a conspiracy theorist. If you plead for peace, you are Putin's stooge. If you protest against your government, you are a terrorist. If you deny the role of the West in leading the world, you are a traitor. And, on top of that, most Westerners are convinced that propaganda is a thing of the non-Western world and that their media are free and independent. Indeed, Baudelaire was right.

Of course, don't make me say that the non-Western world is a Paradise of truth. All nations, all states, all cultures, have their biases, their filters, their entrenched beliefs, and, in many cases, their propaganda machines. Every one of us, Westerners and non-Westerners, sees the world through the filters that our culture, our traditions, and our media place in front of us.  But you, non-Westerners, have a possibility that's denied to us, Westerners. You can use English to peer into the Western media without being embedded in it. And, as I said, I understand that often you don't like what you see.

And so, we are back to Greta Thunberg. Of course, I understand that this girl is not a "grassroots" phenomenon as some might want to believe. She is supported by a top-class team of media experts, she couldn't possibly fight the Western Media Behemot alone. And I understand that her message may be misunderstood, mongrelized, and exploited for yet another round of greenwashing. I know that.

But that's not the point. It is how the appearance of Ms. Thunberg has been both amazing and unexpected. If she is a product of propaganda, then it an unusual kind of propaganda. It would be the first time in many decades that our media are presenting to us a message that's not based on the idea of something or someone evil to be destroyed. This girl crashed through all the media barriers with just a simple message: the truth about climate change. She wasn't telling us to kill or hate anyone, she was just telling us to work together to ensure that her generation could have a future. And she carried the message with an inner force, a way of posing herself, a capability of saying things straight that was nearly unbelievable. It is amazing how she attracted upon herself all kinds of insults, abuse, and curses, but nothing really stuck on her. You remember Ronald Reagan's "Teflon presidency"? Well, this girl is not just Teflon coated: she wears a Mythril armor like the heroes of the trilogy of the ring.

I understand that it is possible that this girl will disappear from the mediasphere in a short time, as it happens for most ideas over the Web, nowadays. But she may turn out to be something more, maybe not the specific person of Greta Thunberg, but in the message she represents. A strong message telling humankind to respect the things that make humankind live: our planet and all the living beings in it.

Let me tell you of something I learned not long ago when I was in Iran. It was the time of the Arbaeen, the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn ibn Ali, forty days after the Day of the Ashura. Someone told me (or maybe I read somewhere) that "Imam Husayn is a figure that we Shi'ites offer as a gift to the whole humankind as an example of virtue and of justice." And that struck me as something worth remembering. In all cultures, we have something or someone we revere as a treasure: a person, a poem, a work of art, a way of seeing the world. And these treasures, I think, we should share with the rest of humankind as gifts.

Now, of course, I don't have the authority to say what the entity we call "The West" should or should not do. For sure, we shared with the world plenty of poisoned gifts in the past. But this girl, Greta Thunberg, might be a true treasure, a gift we could offer to the rest of the world. For once, there would come from the West a message of peace and harmony. Could that really happen? Maybe.

h/t Chandran Nair

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Effect of the Sanctions: Is Iran Cracking Down Under the Strain?

I have to confess that the title of this post is a little of a clickbait. In reality, I will tell you more about Italy than about Iran. But, perhaps, from the story of how Italy reacted to the international economic sanctions imposed on the country in 1935, we can learn something about what could be the result of the current sanctions on Iran. Above, a photo from 1935, it shows a stone slab with the engraved words. "On 18 November 1935, the world besieged Italy. Perennial infamy on those who favored and consumed this absurd crime." Most of these slabs were destroyed after the defeat of Italy in WW2, but some can still be found.

In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia, at that time the only remaining free African country. Why exactly that happened is a long story. Let me just say that, in part, it was a revenge for a defeat suffered long before, when an early attempt at invading Ethiopia had failed. In part, it also had to do with reacting to the financial crash of 1929: governments often tend to seek for external enemies to distract people from internal troubles. Then, in part, it was seen as a way to displease the hated British, seen as guilty of not providing for Italy the coal that the Italian economy needed. And, finally, it had to do with some nebulous dreams about rebuilding the Roman Empire. It may sound silly, today, but if you read what people wrote at that time in Italy, that idea of creating a new Roman Empire was taken seriously.

Whatever the reasons, in 1935 the Ethiopian army was overwhelmed by the modern weaponry deployed by Italy, planes and tanks, with the added help of poison gas bombing, a military innovation for that time. The final result was that the King of Italy gained the dubious honor of taking for himself the title of "Emperor of Ethiopia" and that Italy gained "a place in the sun" in Africa, as the propaganda described the results of the campaign.

A victory, yes, but a hollow one. From the beginning, Ethiopia was only a burden for the Italian economy and the costs of the military occupation were just too much for the already strained Italian finances. The final result was perhaps the shortest-lived empire in history: it lasted just five years, collapsing in 1941 when the Italian forces in Ethiopia were quickly defeated by a coalition of Ethiopian and allied forces.

An interesting side effect of the invasion of Ethiopia was the story of the imposition of economic sanctions on Italy by the League of the Nations. It was a half-hearted effect to stop the invasion, but the war lasted just 8 months and the sanctions were dropped just two months afterward. Their effect was nearly zero in economic and military terms but, in political terms, it was a completely different story and the consequences reverberated for years. Here are some of these consequences:

1. The Italians were not only appalled at the sanctions, they were positively enraged. According to the international laws of the time, for a state to attack another was not in itself a crime (unlike the use of chemical weapons, but that came to be known only later). So, most Italians felt that they were punished for having done something -- annexing an African country -- that the other Western Powers had done before without anyone complaining. The result was a burst of national pride and a strong wave of popular support for the war. That generated also a wave of personal popularity for the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, seen as the one who was making Italy great again (some things never change in politics).

2. The sanctions transformed a war waged on a poor and backward country into something epic and grandiose. Italians perceived the struggle against a coalition of the great powers of the world, Britain in particular. And, by defeating this coalition, Italy showed that it was a great power, too, on a par with the others. This idea had terrible consequences when it led the Duce, Benito Mussolini, to think that Italy could match the military capabilities of the major world powers in WW2.

3. The government propaganda in Italy used the sanctions to magnify the importance of the Ethiopian campaign, seen as a turning point in the quest for a new Italian Empire. As a result, Ethiopia became a national priority, to be kept at all costs. At the start of WW2, Italy had more than 100,000 fully equipped troops there. Without the possibility of being resupplied from Italy, these troops had no chances against the British and they were rapidly wiped out. What might have happened if they had been available in other war theaters? It is unlikely that the final outcome of WW2 would have changed, but, who knows? The battle for Egypt in 1942 could have had a different outcome if Italy had been able to field 100,000 more troops there and, maybe, taken the Suez canal.

This catalog of disasters is so impressive that we might wonder if the sanctions were not just the result of incompetence and idiocy, but of an evil machination. Could it be that the British had wanted Italy to engage in an adventure that was sure to lead the country to ruin, later? Of course, it is unlikely that the British had been planning for exactly what happened, but it is not impossible that they understood that the Italian military apparatus would be weakened by the task of keeping Ethiopia and that would make Italy a less dangerous adversary in case of an all-out military conflict. If the British had planned that, they truly deserved the reputation they had at the time (and that they still have) described with the name of the "Perfidious Albion."

That's the story of the sanctions against Italy, now let's go to the sanctions against Iran. First of all, a disclaimer: I don't claim to be an expert in Iranian matters and politics. I don't speak Persian and I visited Iran only once in my life. So, I can only claim to have read and studied about Iran for years and to have many Iranian friends and acquaintances. Yet, if I think of the idiocies that you can read on the Western Media about Iran, I feel I can do something better, maybe useful for the readers of this blog. So, let me take a look at the current sanctions on Iran on the basis of the assumption that Iranian and Italians are very similar people in terms of ideas, temperament, and beliefs -- which I think is true on the basis of my experience.

Then, we know that story rhimes, but never exactly repeats. So, there are many similarities in the story of the sanctions against Iran and those against Italy, but also considerable differences. The main similarity is, of course, that Iranians feel unjustly punished for doing something, starting a nuclear energy program, that other countries could do in the past without anyone punishing them. But note also that the current sanctions on Iran are harsher than anything that was imposed on Italy. When vice-president Pompeo said that the purpose of the sanctions is to starve the Iranians, you get a certain feeling that the matter is deadly serious in a literal sense.

So, what's happening in Iran and what might happen in the future? As I already discussed in a previous post, so far the effect of the sanctions has been limited. But inflation is biting hard the finances of the Iranian Middle Class and the government risks to be soon in trouble in maintaining the services that so far have been provided for free: instruction, health care, and more. In the long run, the cohesion of the Iranian society could be threatened and the recent street disorders could be a symptom of something like that.

The Iranian government is currently led by a moderate, President Rouhani, who stated more than once that he doesn't want to engage in any kind of retaliation. Some Iranians would want a more forceful reaction but, in general, they seem to recognize their weakness in front of the mighty US empire. Fortunately, nobody in Iran seems to be thinking of resurrecting the defunct Parthian Empire, unlike what Italians were trying to do with the Roman Empire in the 1930s. If Iran can hold on long enough, the storm may indeed end.

But what if the sanctions had a true evil purpose in the sense of having the task of pushing Iran to do something stupid, as it was the case with Italy, long ago? Under heavy strain, Iranians could decide that their best bet is for a strong leader who would "Make Iran Great Again." And what could happen if things really go from bad to worse? Iranians could go through the same chain of misperceptions that Italy followed, bolstered by some local success, becoming convinced to be a great power. Then, if an American president wants to obliterate Iran with a nuclear strike, who or what could stop her? Then, if evil has to be, could that be the real purpose of the sanctions?

Hopefully, these extreme scenarios will never take place but one thing is clear to me: sanctions are a bad idea. They are sold to the Western public as something "humane," actually designed to help the people they target to get rid of an evil and oppressive government. It is not like that. Maybe sanctions are not as bad as carpet bombing, but they are a tool to start wars.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

RAMSES: The Electric Tractor is Alive and Well in Tehran

The RAMSES vehicle under development in Italy in 2011. In the photo, from the left, the developers: Toufic El Asmar, Paolo Pasquini, and Ugo Bardi.

Maybe you read my descriptions of the "RAMSES" electric tractor that I helped to develop some years ago with funding from the European Commission. It was an interesting project and the result was a practical multi-purpose vehicle for agricultural applications. It was not meant to be a heavy-duty tractor, it was something that could perform many different tasks, from transporting goods to spraying and irrigating. Above, you can see the vehicle in a photo of some years above. And you can read a complete description in a paper that we published in the "Journal of Cleaner Production" (authors U. Bardi. T. El Asmar and A. Lavacchi, vol. 19, pp. 2034-2048 - 203). See also a post on the Cassandra blog

So, I was very pleased last month when I saw a version of the same idea being developed in Teheran by Professor Hossein Mousazadeh at the faculty of Agricultural Engineering. Hossein had been working at the RAMSES project in Italy at the University of Florence and here is his brainchild, "RAMSES 2.0"

Below, another picture of the same tractor, driven by Hossein himself

In comparison with the Italian RAMSES, the Iranian version is similar. It uses lead batteries, too, for the lowest possible cost. But it has a few additional quirks: first of all, it is a hybrid vehicle that can recharge its batteries using a gas-powered, on-board engine. It can also recharge in an emergency using PV panels on top: Iran, just like Italy, is a sunny country. Note also the camera in front, the vehicle can be remote-controlled and it has a certain capability of autonomous motion. Apart from this, it follows the basic philosophy of what an electric agricultural vehicle should be: rugged, simple, as inexpensive as possible.

As you may have imagined, both the RAMSES and the Tehran tractor have remained at the stage of prototypes, so far. The market for electric vehicles seems to be moving from the top toward the bottom, with the great success of the Tesla cars so far not reaching the low-cost side of the transportation market. And, obviously, agriculture is a market where low-cost is a desperate necessity for cash-strapped farmers everywhere. It will take time before electrification reaches the agricultural world. But, eventually, even farmers will have to be weaned from their addiction to oil.

So we are moving slowly toward the energy transition. But, eventually, we'll get there!

Below, yours truly, Ugo Bardi, playing the farmer with the Iranian tractor. 

Sunday, December 1, 2019

What's wrong with the oil industry? Too many claims of abundance start sounding suspicious

Above: the Financial Times of Nov 29th, 2019. Has the US really become energy independent?

Peak oil theorists have always been the favorite punching ball of mainstream oil pundits but, recently, the attacks against the peak oil idea have started becoming so loud and widespread that I am starting to think that there has to be something wrong with the oil world nowadays. As an especially bad example, I may cite a recent article on Forbes by Michael Lynch. I understand that some people have a bone to pick and they want to pick it clean, but this is a little too much -- there are limits to how nasty one can be, even in a heated discussion. 

Yet, some claims of great oil abundance seem to be based not just on the pleasure of denigrating peak oil theorists but on data said to be real. Just as an example, see a recent article on the Financial Times where we can read that,
The US has cemented its status as a net exporter in world oil markets, a sharp reversal from past years that could affect its ties to foreign allies. 
You may wonder the logic of using the term "cemented," that carries the meaning of consolidating something already existing. Indeed, claims of the US having reached "energy independence" in terms of crude oil had become common after that the US production had exceeded imports -- that meant nothing, of course, it was pure dry-holing. At that time, the US had, and still has, a deficit of nearly 3 million barrels of oil in terms of import/export balance, as you can see in the figure below. (image from SeekingAlpha)

The EIA data for crude oil confirm that in November of this year the US had a DEFICIT of 2.7 million barrels per day in the import/export balance. So, how can the FT claim that the US is a net exporter, then? Simple: under the category of "oil" they sum crude oil and oil products. The latter include refinery products such as kerosene, diesel fuel, lubricants, etc. And, indeed, recently the sum of the exports of these two categories has touched and slightly exceeded the curve of the crude oil imports. 

Does that mean that the US is now "energy independent" in the sense that it exports more oil than it imports? Not at all. That would be true ONLY if the exported products were wholly made with US oil -- which obviously cannot be the case. The US production, nowadays, comes in large part from shale oil, which is light oil. But refineries prefer to use heavy oil, which is imported from Canada and other regions outside the US. The refined products made from this oil can be counted as "oil exports" but it is not oil that was produced in the US. If what counts is the US energy independence, then it is obvious that it is just a trick to make the US look like it is producing more than it does. 

It is true that the US oil production keeps increasing, so far, but for how long can it continue growing? Indeed, there seems to be a suspicious excess of glee in these claims of oil abundance. Could it be an attempt to cover some big problems? Hard to say, but one thing is impressive: 2019 should the first year in a decade -- since the great recession of 2009 -- when the world oil production declined (data by Ron Patterson).

The story of peak oil has been a war of opinions and we know that wars are won by those who win the last battle. Mr. Lynch is surely convinced that his opinions on peak oil have been vindicated, but it may be too early for him to take a victory lap. 

Are we looking at the other side of the growth curve

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Like Stalingrad: Italy's Concrete Infrastructure is Melting in the Rain

The region of Liguria, within the red circle, is a narrow strip of land stuck between the Appennini Mountains and the Tyrrhenian Sea. It is also a critical element of the transportation system that connects France and the Po valley to the rest of Italy. As you may imagine, this heavily urbanized region is subjected to disastrous floods. The situation became so bad, recently, that the president of the Liguria region declared it was like the siege of Stalingrad, during WWII. The image above is from a presentation by Massimo Lanfranco, highly recommended!

When you have a fame of being a catastrophist or a Cassandra, reading that some of your prophecies turned out to be true may be a little unsettling. But it seems that I understood something correctly with the chapter of my recent book "Before the Collapse," where I described how the world's concrete infrastructure was getting old and decaying and how the situation was going to get worse with time.

In my take of the situation, I was inspired by the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genova, Italy, in 2018, but I was sure that worse things were going to happen. And it seems that I was right: the recent disasters in Southern Europe (France, Greece, and Italy) show how roads, railways, and buildings, are fragile, often on the edge of collapse. Rains heavier than usual are sufficient to create disasters, in part because of landslides and floods, in part because of the aged and weakened concrete structures. And, with climate change pressing forward, heavy rains are going to be more and more common.

In Italy, the situation is especially bad in Liguria, the crescent-shaped region that lies South of the Appennini mountains in North-Western Italy. It is a crucial region for the Italian economy: its ports are the gateway to the industrial areas of the Po valley, on the other side of the mountains. Roads and railroads connecting Italy to Southern France go through the narrow strip between the mountains and the sea in Liguria, an area that was heavily urbanized and impermeabilized. Today, it is prone to floods and to all the associated disasters. Almost every year, something horrible happens there -- the collapse of the Morandi bridge was just one case among many. Below, you can see the most recent case of a highway bridge having collapsed. It happened on Nov 24th, fortunately there were no victims (image from Vigili del Fuoco)

That the situation is dramatic starts being perceived. Here is what the President of the Liguria Region, Giovanni Toti, said after the latest bridge collapse.

Siamo in guerra. Siamo a Stalingrado ... La Liguria oggi è isolata come prima degli anni Trenta. Ogni minuto di chiusura sarà un danno incalcolabile per la città, la regione e l’economia del Nord Ovest. .. È come se fossimo in tempo di guerra. Non possiamo reggere oltre la settimana. Il Governo si deve fare carico di tutto ciò che serve. 
We are at war, we are at Stalingrad... Liguria is today isolated as it was in the 1930s... Every minute of closure of the highway is an incalculable damage for the city, the region, for the North-Western economy. It is like wartime. We can't hold more than a week. The Government must intervene with all that's needed. 
Maybe a little exaggerated, but not so much. Our whole civilization is built on concrete structures that may turn to be no more resilient than a sandcastle built on the beach at low tide. And those of us who are Cassandras had noted that before the emergency but, as usual, we were not heard. Here is a snapshot of the first page of the relevant chapter from my book "Before the Collapse"

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Denigrating "The Limits to Growth" is Still a Popular Pastime. But can we Learn Something From it?

Many people seem to be surprised when I tell them that I follow the abominable science denial blog "Watts Up With That" kept by Alan Watts. Yes, it is abominable, sometimes, but it has one feature that makes it stand a couple of notches above the other science denial blogs: it is almost never boring, It has the same fascination that you can find in a well-done evil character of a literature piece, think of Shakespeare's Iago in Othello. And sometimes you can learn something even from WUWT: if nothing else about how your enemies think and behave.

The first report to the Club of Rome, the 1972 study titled "The Limits to Growth," is one of the typical bugaboos of those people we call "denialists," people who deny the main findings of climate science. The study didn't consider global warming explicitly, but its results relative to pollution could be seen as hinting at the problem. So, it is not surprising that the same attitude of denial embraces both studies on resource depletion and climate change. No surprise that, in the 1980s, "The Limits to Growth" started to be the target of a denigration campaign that's continuing nowadays in parallel with the one ongoing against climate science. I told the "Limits-Bashing" story in my 2011 book "The Limits to Growth Revisited."

The story is not over. Today, I found Limits-bashing alive and well in a post by Eric Worrall on "Watt's Up With That" (WUWT). The post starts with a citation from an article by Annabel Crabb on ABC news describing the split on climate change that took place 10 years ago in the Australian parliament. The story is not so easy to decipher for someone who is not Australian, but Ms. Crabb attributes the collapse of bipartisan policies on climate change on the actions of MP Andrew Robb who, apparently, had been an early supporter of the ideas of the Club of Rome but who later reversed his position.

Crabb reports:
He (Robb) mentions that when he was a much younger man, he was "a great student" of the Club of Rome, an association of scientists, bureaucrats, politicians and public thinkers who in 1972 published the book Limits To Growth, warning that the world's resources could not withstand the depredations of ceaseless economic growth indefinitely.

Limits To Growth is still the highest-selling environmental book in the history of the world, having sold 30 million copies in more than 30 languages.

But Robb's early fascination with the work gave way to distrust of its conclusions and primitive computer modelling; he says its warnings of resource exhaustion and economic collapse towards the end of the 20th century were overstated.

"The thing they didn't talk about was technology. That you could find gas 300 kilometres offshore, for example, and find a way to bring it onshore. Because of this, the Club of Rome — which was quite a reputable group of people — looked more and more ridiculous as the years rolled on."

The Club of Rome has its critics and its defenders; Limits To Growth was commonly derided by the 1990s as a misguided Doomsday scenario, but has enjoyed something of a renaissance lately. The CSIRO published a paper in 2008 finding that the book's 30-year modelling of consequences from a "business as usual" approach to economic growth was essentially sound.

But what's not deniable is that this work influenced one young man who grew up to be one member of a parliamentary party with a singular role to play in one vote on a policy that would either change or not change the course of a country.

In the end, Ms. Crabb arrives at the surprising conclusion that if the Australian parliament failed to adopt environmental policies it was a fault of a Club of Rome. A bit of a flight of fancy to say the least. It seems more likely that Mr. Robb just thought that a little "Limits-Bashing" was appropriate to justify his actions of 10 years ago. So, he engaged in a few remarkably statements for someone who claims to have been a "Great Student" of the Club of Rome. For instance, the Limits study never said that the collapse of the world's economy was expected "toward the end of the 20th century." (and, about one of Ms. Crabb's statements, 30 million copies sold for The Limits to Growth is a wildly exaggerated number).

More interesting than the somewhat convoluted Australian story is the reaction of Eric Worrall on WUWT. Apparently, he had never heard of the work of Graham Turner, so he engages in a somewhat rambling criticism of The Limits to Growth where he cites Turner more than once. The surprising thing is that Worrall doesn't engage in the usual sneers against the Club of Rome. No, Worrall makes several mistakes, evidently he doesn't know much about dynamic modeling nor about the specific study he is criticizing, but, considering the standards of the WUWT site, it is a reasonably balanced text.

But I said that you can often learn something from WUWT. What is that you can learn in this case? A typical trick they play: they publish a post that looks superficially balanced, but they know that it is a bait for their commenters who will then proceed to state what climate science deniers really think. With this post, as for many others on WUWT, the real learning experience is to read the rabid comments. Just as an example, about Turner's work, we read that "CSIRO is a cesspool of socialist academics including some IP theft specialist employees working for China; yes really!"

And we keep going and we keep learning 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Climategate, 10 Years Later: What Can we Learn About it from Memetics?

Ten years ago, on November 20th, 2009, the "Climategate" story broke into the news, worldwide. At the beginning, it seemed to be just part of the heated debate on climate. Then, its true character appeared more clearly: it was a major demonstration of the power of the media to control the memesphere. Above, an image from The Telegraph of Nov 28th, 2009

You may think of "Climategate " as a scandal but, really, it was a startling demonstration of how propaganda can be effective. That dawned on me one day when I was having lunch at the university cafeteria with one of my former teachers. We were chatting of this and that when he came up with something like, "hey, Ugo, did you hear that they intercepted the phone calls of some climate scientists and they confessed that they had altered the data?" I remained frozen, holding my fork in mid-air. This scientist was like a child: outside his narrow field of study, he was unable to critically evaluate the news that he received from the media.

That was not the only experience that showed me that there is something deeply wrong in the way we manage knowledge, but surely it was a big push in that direction. As a scientist, I am trained in the scientific method, not a single rule but a general attitude that says, "verify everything before assuming it is true." Evidently, that doesn't apply to politics, not even to those issues that are important for the survival of humankind. But how is it that people are so easily swayed by propaganda?

As I discuss in my latest book, "Before the Collapse," believing in what looks true is a time-honored tradition. It is a quick and dirty epistemological trick that often works in situations where you have to take a rapid decision based on insufficient data. (say, you stumble into a sabertooth tiger that looks hungry -- it is safe to assume it is). It even has a name, the term "zetetics" is used sometimes, coming from a Greek word that means "I search." This approach is used also when you are overwhelmed by data and you have to simplify. The idea of zetetics is to avoid all kinds of theory or models: what you see is what is true. It is the attitude of flat-earthers: the Earth looks flat, then it has to be flat, and the hell with those "models" trying to show that it is round.

In the case of Climategate, the basis of the problem is that climate science is a complex story that proposes something that looks contrary to fact: that the Earth's climate changes. A good zeteticist would never accept that: climate looks stable, then it has to be stable. Then, why those scientists insist that it is not? Something smells bad, here. And there comes Climategate to confirm that there is something bad in the story, indeed. Of course, there was nothing in the mails that were released that could even vaguely indicate that climate scientists were conspiring in order to swindle humankind by tampering with their results. Out of 160 Mb of data, all that could be found were a couple of sentences taken out of context ("hide the decline" or "Mike's trick") and some legitimate personal opinions. But, apparently, if scientists could be made to look evil, then they had to be evil! Zetetics at work.

But it wasn't just that: Climategate was especially impressive not just for its rapid diffusion, but also for how resilient it was to all attempts to dislodge it from the public consciousness. Even today, 10 years later, you can read plenty of commentaries on the Web showing that many people are still convinced that the scientists involved with Climategate were doing something ugly and horrible, although it isn't clear to them exactly what. So, we can be easily swindled by this kind of hoaxes: Climategate is just one of them.  But can we at least learn something from these stories?

Yes, we can. For me, Climategate was the start of a research that went in some depth into understanding how the mechanisms of what we call "consensus" work. With some colleagues of mine, we discovered the existence of something called "memetics" and how memes diffuse through the "memesphere." Being good scientists, we even published papers in this subject, trying to define what pushes a meme to become "viral" as it is fashionable to say nowadays. In one of these papers, we observed that there is a difference between "bottom-up" memes (that is, the true viral memes) and memes diffused from above (we call them "fall-out" memes).

So, here are some data for "Climategate" obtained from Google trends. Note the abrupt "spike" in the signal: according to our models, it shows that the story was pushed into the public consciousness mainly by the media. What we see in the data is a reflection of how the public was driven to search more about what they had read in news sites or heard on TV,

Here are some more data on the peak of interest

Note also how the peak goes in bumps. It is another characteristic of fall-out memes. They are pushed from above by the timed release of new data that keep the interest of the public alive. A meme managed in this way is like a city attacked by successive waves of bombers.

The searches for the Climategate story rapidly abated, after about one month the "infective" phase of the meme was over. But the meme remains dormant like an encysted virus, you can see that from the fact that the "tail" never goes exactly to zero. It is remarkable how "Climategate" has a search volume comparable to that of "Russiagate" despite being ten years old -- an age that for news exceed that of the Biblical Methuselah.

So, did the Climategate meme have something special that made it so resilient? I'd say no: it was just one of those memes that live on pointing at an enemy of the people ("orange man bad"). These memes are extremely effective and long-lasting (see this post of mine for a series that includes Jews eating children and Marie Antoinette telling the hungry people of Paris to eat cake). There is very little that can be done to stop them once they start growing along their viral trajectory. Rational arguments against memes are not more effective than they would be with biological viruses. Just like a virus doesn't "see" the macroscopic world in which we live, a meme doesn't "see" the real world. The memesphere is another dimension.

Still, we are not completely defenseless against memetic attacks. We could say that the false information (aka fake news) that pervades the Web is a form of pollution. Then, it could be reduced by using the same methods used to reduce the real world's pollution. That is, forcing polluters to clean up their act and to pay for the damage they caused. That could be applied also to the people who spread fake news on the Web but, unfortunately, right now, those who claim to be fighting fake news are also the main producers of fake news, so it is hard to think that they would act against their own interests. But, in the long run, something good could be done using this approach.

Then, at the individual level, we can learn from biology how to fight back against memetic attacks. For instance:
  1. Avoid contact with contaminated areas: That means mainly avoiding the mainstream media (MSM), but also social media can be highly toxic. They are carpet bombing your brain with destructive memes every day: if you don't dodge them, eventually they'll destroy your defenses and with that your brain.
  2. Avoid contact with infected people. Don't debate with people who have bought into some especially malign meme: it is like thinking that you can cure someone from aids by sleeping with him or her. It is much more likely that you will be infected yourself.
  3. Build up your immune system. Create a meme filter: any and every meme that arrives to you, especially if it is from the MSM, has to be considered false unless proven to be true.
  4. Reinforce your defenses. Counter the MSM and social media with other sources of information. Blogs are an especially effective way, not for nothing they are under continuous attack, nowadays. But as long as you have access to independent information (we don't know for how long that will be possible), use it. Just don't forget that even what you learn from blogs has to be considered false unless proven true. Otherwise, you risk being infected by opposed but just as malign memes.

Of course, that's hardly sufficient to stop the diffusion of evil memes but, at least, it will help you maintain a certain degree of mental sanity. And that's the best we can do for now.

(See also a previous comment of mine on the same subject)


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)