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 are infected by some especially malign meme: it is like thinking that you can cure someone of 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, 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)