It is extremely challenging to communicate science in an environment where well-funded anti-science activists and organizations spends millions and millions of dollars at targeted misinformation to undermine the public confidence in scientific research. Many people are resistant to facts and might even become more entrenched in their pseudoscientific beliefs the more facts they are exposed to. There is also another force for nonsense that is increasingly prevalent, namely highly influential celebrities with lots of opinions and hardly any knowledge of the science. When they spew their nonsense across the Internet, it gets viewed by millions of people who already trust the messenger, while scientific corrections are read by a lot fewer people. For instance, the Internet celebrity Nicole Arbour recently posted a video pushing conspiracy theories about ADHD and despite the fact that scientific refutations are available, it got a substantial impact by misleading several million people.
Another such Internet celebrity that has pushed pseudoscience is comic artist Scott Adams. On his blog, he has promoted both creationism and climate denial before. Recently, Adams has gone from merely posting pseudoscience on his blog to putting in misleading nonsense into his Dilbert comics themselves. On May 14, he posted a comic mocking climate science. The Boss has invited a climate scientist to talk about how climate change can impact their company. The scientist does not explain the real facts about climate and climate science, but a climate denial misrepresentation that Dilbert can relatively easily knockdown. More generally, the comic confuses questions related to how we know that greenhouse gases cause warming, how we know there is a current warming trend, how we know humans contribute substantially to warming and what we know about what will happen in the future.
The following is the transcript of the dialogue of the comic provided by the Dilbert website (note that “The Man” character is the climate scientist).
Boss: I invited a climate scientist to explain the risk of climate change to our company.
Man: Human activity is warming the earth and will lead to a global catastrophe.
Dilbert: How do scientists know that?
Man: It’s easy. We start with the basic science of physics and chemistry. Then we measure changes in temperature and CO2 over time. We put that data into dozens of different climate models and ignore the ones that look wrong to us. Then we take that output and run it through long-term economic models of the sort that have never been right.
Dilbert: What if I don’t trust the economic models?
Man: Who hired the science denier?
This comic is scientifically flawed in several ways.
First, it is not merely about warming, but many other issues such as changed land use, population growth, species extinctions, loss of rain forests, water use, pollution etc. It is very common for news media and certainly pseudoscience activists to just focus on increased temperatures or increased concentrations of carbon dioxide, but there is a lot more to the realities of climate change. All of these factors point in the same general direction, namely that human impact on the environment is substantial and that there are many areas where this is not beneficial. Climate deniers ignore this independent convergence of evidence and want to exclusively focus on cherry-picking temperature trends that make it appear as if there is no warming or even cooling. This is thus doubly deceptive: they ignore the vast majority of climate issues, while picking deceptive intervals to ignore the clear evidence of warming. In particular, climate deniers love to start their intervals at 1998 because it was a large El Niño event that produced a lot of warming. They typically end before the latest El Niño event during 2016 and then draw their trend line to get constant temperatures or cooling and then insist that global warming is somehow a hoax. This can be spotted anytime a climate denier insists that there has been no warming since 1998 or no warming for between 16 and 19 years or some such weird interval selection.
Second, the comic chooses to highlight specific emission scenarios, namely some of the worst scenarios. This also coincides with the common misrepresentation of climate science as “catastrophic anthropogenic global warming” (cAGW). Climate deniers often exaggerate the most likely climate predictions because those exaggerations are easier to critique, while spending much less attention towards actual conclusions about the observed warming or most likely emission scenarios.
It is perfectly reasonable for Dilbert to ask the scientist (which is drawn in a way that is reminiscent of Michael Mann) how scientists know things. However, the explanation of the evidence for climate change is almost completely botched by Adams, himself a long-term climate denier and creationist.
The third reason why this comic is flawed is that it does not separate out issues related to how we know that carbon dioxide causes warming, the observation of warming and future climate and economic predictions. We know that carbon dioxide causes warming for over 100 years from basic lab experiments and we know we are in a current warming trend because we can measure it using multiple techniques, from ice cores and tree rings to thermometers and satellites. These are scientific facts that cannot be reasonably denied no matter how much someone criticizes climate or economic predictions.
Fourth, the comic claims that climate scientists dismiss flawed climate models due to confirmation bias. In reality, climate models are evaluated based on how well they fit with the data we have and the way the world works. Some climate models may miss important climate factors, whereas others might incorrectly estimate some parameter that new data better estimates and so on. Climate scientists do not just make up a bunch of climate models and then discard the ones that do not fit with their existing beliefs. Instead, there is extensive work at checking, corroborating and validating climate models. A great introduction to some of these issues and climate models in general is the free book Demystifying Climate Models. The Debunking Denialism companion website Defending Science has a brief review of this book here. Climate models are not just used to make predictions in the future, but also for understanding different causes of the observed warming.
Fifth, the comic portrays the situation as if climate science conclusions hinges on specific economic models. This is of course not accurate. The warming potential of carbon dioxide has been known from lab experiments and the current warming trend is measured by many different data sources. No matter how much you dismiss economic models, that argument holds no weight against these basic science conclusions. Even if we had no idea about the economic impact of climate change, we could be confidence that there is a current warming trend, that carbon dioxide causes warming and that humans are a major cause of the observed warming.
Sixth, the climate scientists calls Dilbert a science denier because he expressed what appears to be honest skepticism towards economic models the scientist claims are “never right”. In reality, scientists uses the label science denier for people who claim there is no warming, that the warming is not a big deal or that humans are not involved. One does not become a science denier simply because of criticism of some obscure economic prediction.
Seventh, the comic puts a lot of emphasis on the impact of climate change on a company in the distant future. In reality, climate change is already having negative impacts on the world and thereby companies. This is completely ignored in the comic.
Fundamentally, the Dilbert comic on climate abuses climate science, confuses many different aspects of climate research, and even misrepresents climate deniers themselves. Climate deniers do not merely dispute certain economic models, but dispute almost all aspects of climate research. Today, there are so many different ways to deny climate science that many of them contradict each other. Some insist that there is no warming, whereas others claim all the warming is natural whereas yet others insist that there is warming and humans are the major contributor, but it is just too late or too expensive to do anything about it. In other words, climate denial fails to grasp even the basics of climate science and is not even internally consistent and this is clearly demonstrated by the Dilbert comic.