Monday, April 8, 2019

Russiagate, Climategate, and the Generalized Godwin's law

Above: results obtained using "Google Trends" of the meme diffusion of the "Climategate" story of 2009 compared with the recent buzz about Trump's alleged collusion with the Russian government ("Russiagate"). Both memes show similar search volumes and they may both be subjected to a version of "Godwin's law" that says that in any political discussion the probability that Adolf Hitler will be mentioned tends toward 1. The same seems to be true for the term "Climategate" in any discussion about climate, while "Russiagate" may affect future discussions about Donald Trump. This memetic behavior could be called the "Generalized Godwin's Law."

The "Climategate" story of 2009 was a remarkable example of a successful PR campaign. It was the more remarkable because there was nothing damning, and not even interesting, in the mails exchanged by a group of climate scientists that were diffused over the Web with great fanfare. All we can remember of that "scandal" today are a few sentences -- such as "hide the decline" -- taken out of context and twisted in such a way to create the impression of a hoax that wasn't there. Nevertheless, the concept that the scientists had been doing something bad deeply impacted on the public's opinions. According to Leiserowits et al.
In 2008, 71% of Americans said “yes,” global warming is happening. By 2010, however, this number had dropped to 57%. Meanwhile the proportion that said “no,” global warming is not happening doubled from 10% to 20%.
Over the years, never again the Climategate meme could regain its initial popularity and the attempts to revamp it as "climategate#2" and "Climategate#3" failed miserably. But the meme never disappeared and its influence was long-lived. From a recent Yale survey, we can see that only now -- ten years later - we are returning to a distribution of opinions on climate change similar to that prevalent before Climategate.

Today, Google Trends still report searches being performed for the "Climategate" term. It is a small volume in comparison to the initial peak, but it is there.

That the meme is still alive, although quiescent, is confirmed noting that the latest mention of Climategate on the popular anti-climate science blog by Anthony Watts' is as recent as March 27, 2019. Clearly, the Climategate meme remains stuck in the public's perception. We could imagine that it is subjected to a version of "Godwin's Law" that says that any political discussion is likely to see "Adolf Hitler" mentioned at some moment. In this case, we could speak of a "generalized Godwin's law:" in any discussion, some old and discredited meme is increasingly likely to be mentioned as the discussion continues.

Something similar seems to be taking place with the accusations of treason against Donald Trump, the case called "Russiagate." It is a term still not so popular as "Climategate," but it may become commonplace in the future.In this case, the noise is mainly related to the Special counsel Robert Mueller report on the Russia story. At present, the debate is raging: some claim that Trump did nothing wrong on the basis of the statements of attorney general William Barr, others maintain that Trump is a traitor and think that the full Mueller report will confirm their views.

Just as for the case of Climategate, the discussion is not based on any fact, only on the twisted interpretation of something presented as facts. And it is unlikely that anyone will change their opinions once the full report is released! So, the "Russiagate" meme may well go quiescent and then become one of those entrenched memes that will continue being mentioned according to the generalized Godwin's law.

And memetics remains a fascinating field of science.


A partial list of Generalized Godwin's memes. These are especially stubborn legends which never seem to disappear.

  1.  "But those emails...." (Discussions on climate)
  2.  "How could the towers fall at that speed?" (Discussions on the 9/11 attacks)
  3.  "Renewables can only be extensions of fossil fuels" (Discussions on renewable energy)
  4.  "Are you working for the Russians?" (Discussion about Russia)
  5.  "The Limits to Growth said oil should have run out by 1982" (Discussions on resource depletion)
  6. "Those shadows left by the astronauts on the Moon surface...." (Discussions on the moon landing)
  7. "There should be now 9 feet of horse manure accumulated in New York"  (Discussions on pollution)
  8. And more......

1 comment:

  1. A meme in the context of information theory is rather generic; everything one thinks is a meme. A meme in the vernacular is more nearly an idea, humorous or propagandistic, that seizes the public imagination for a spell (or longer) and takes on a life of its own. You’re referring to the latter when you reference Google trends. That the ClimateGate meme has legs is no surprise. It’s a comforting story we tell ourselves rather than face the more compelling but unpalatable truth. Indeed, as a basic feature of cognition, the stories we well ourselves (about ourselves) need not hew too close to reality. Today, we live in an age of illusion, what some have called hyperreality considering its fabricated nature. That worldview will by necessity give way to cold, hard reality. No way to say we didn’t see it coming at this point.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)