Swiftboating science

“Swiftboating” is a new term for me – and for science, I guess. But it is part of US political jargon.

To quote Wikipedia:

“Swiftboating . .  is used as a strong pejorative description of some kind of attack that the speaker considers unfair or untrue—for example, an ad hominem attack or a smear campaign.

The term comes from the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth (formerly “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” or SBVT) and that group’s widely publicized campaign against 2004 US Presidential candidate John Kerry.

Originally, terms like “swiftboating”, “Swift Boating”, “Swift Boat tactics”, etc. were mostly used by people who disapproved of the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth. It is now in mainstream use. Some American conservatives have strongly objected (see below) to the criticism of SBVT implied by such negative usage.”

It appears, mainly, to be a tactic of political conservatives. So it’s not surprising they describe the process differently. This from Conservapedia:

Swift-boating is an idiomatic catchphrase generally taken to mean exposing hard truths about Democrats who have distorted the truth or lied about their own activities.

Here on Conservapedia, the term is used to mean exposing hard truths about liberal editors who censor, distort the truth, or engage in deceit.”

So – its a synonym for “character assassination” and “smear.” With particular connotations of calling into question one’s honourable status.

Swiftboating climate scientists

Paul Krugman may have been the first to use the term to describe political attacks on climate scientists. In his New York Times Op Ed Swift Boating the Planet he describes a situation which today is unfortunately very common:

“John Kerry, a genuine war hero, didn’t realize that he could successfully be portrayed as a coward. And it seems to me that Dr. Hansen, whose predictions about global warming have proved remarkably accurate, didn’t believe that he could successfully be portrayed as an unreliable exaggerator. His first response to Dr. Michaels, in January 1999, was astonishingly diffident. He pointed out that Dr. Michaels misrepresented his work, but rather than denouncing the fraud involved, he offered a rather plaintive appeal for better behavior.”

So today honest climate scientists are accused of fraud, of carrying out a hoax. Locally climate change deniers like the Climate Science Coalition, Ian Wishart and bloggers like Poneke and WhaleOil are swiftboating NIWA scientists.

There is an hysterical international campaign against climate scientists and specifically the International panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Phil Jones in the UK and Michael Mann in the US. Sure, Phil Jones and his university still face several inquiries – but no wrong doing, and particularly no violation of scientific ethics, has yet been proven. Michael Mann has been cleared of all charges investigated to data. Not that this makes a difference to the lynch mob mentality of the swiftboaters.

And the more hysterical elements of the current anti climate science hysteria and extending their swift boating to science in general.

Big backers

The political swift boating campaigns generally have big backers in the background. Think tanks, politcal parties and commercial interests.  And this is also true of the climate change swift boaters, despite their attempts to present a grass root image on the internet – a process known as astroturfing.

Juan Cole, President of the Global Americana Institute, recently wrote (see Advice to Climate Scientists on how to Avoid being Swift-boated and how to become Public Intellectuals):

“a.Very, very wealthy and powerful interests are lobbying the big media companies behind the scenes to push climate change skepticism, or in some cases (as with Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp/ Fox Cable News) the powerful and wealthy interests actually own the media.

b. Powerful politicians linked to those wealthy interests are shilling for them, and elected politicians clearly backed by economic elites are given respect in the US corporate media. Big Oil executives e.g. have an excellent rollodex for CEOs, producers, the bookers for the talk shows, etc. in the corporate media. They also behind the scenes fund “think tanks” such as the American Enterprise Institute to produce phony science. Since the AEI generates talking points that aim at helping Republicans get elected and pass right wing legislation, it is paid attention to by the corporate media.”

The climate change, and anti-science, swiftboating in New Zealand is no different. It has its political links and big backers. The denier groups The Climate Science Coaltion and the Climate Conversation Group work very closely with the ACT Party. Parliamentary questions are staged to coincide with their anti-science attacks. These groups and the ACT Party are also closely connected to the local right wing think tank The Centre for Political Research. And the latter is linked to the usual overseas conservative organisations like The Heartland Insitute and conservative media like The American Thinker.

What can we do?

Well, scientist obviously won’t resort to the same tactics. They are not going to swifboat the nati-science lobby. If they did they would no longer be scientists.

But here is Advice to Climate Scientists on how to Avoid being Swift-boated and how to become Public Intellectuals by Juan Cole:

“Every single serious climate scientist should be running a blog. There is enormous thirst among the public for this information, and publishing only in technical refereed journals is guaranteed to quarantine the information away from the general public. A blog allows scientists to summarize new findings in clear language for a wide audience. It makes the scientist and the scientific research ‘legible’ to the wider society. Educated lay persons will run with interesting new findings and cause them to go viral. You will also find that you give courage to other colleagues who are specialists to speak out in public. You cannot depend on journalists to do this work. You have to do it yourselves.”


“If you just keep plugging away at it, with blogging and print, radio and television interviews, you can have an impact on public discourse over time.  . . . Going public also makes it likely that you will be personally smeared and horrible lies purveyed about you in public (they don’t play fair– they make up quotes and falsely attribute them to you; it isn’t a debate, it is a hatchet job).  . . . .  But if an issue is important to you and the fate of your children and grandchildren, surely having an impact is well worth any price you pay.”

Climate scientists and evolutionary biologists may currently be the main victims of this swiftboating. But soem of this hysteria does leak over into a general attack on science.

Juan Cole’s advice is relevant to all scientists.


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30 responses to “Swiftboating science

  1. Having been through the 2004 US presidential election, I would take quite a bit of what the Democrats say about “swift boating” with a grain of salt. Most Republicans believed that the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” were heroes who spoke out against Sen. John Kerry’s exploitation of his (questionable) Vietnam war record. The amount of MONEY the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had to work with was very small, so I don’t think it’s accurate to use “swiftboating” as a term for “using some big corporation’s money.”

    From my perspective, John Kerry made his war record the central premise of his candidacy, even though many Americans had grave doubts about his choices at the end of the Vietnam War. Kerry’s famous question was, “How do you ask someone to be the last man to die for a mistake,” and he argued that America should pull out of Iraq in 2004 because our effort there was as futile as the American effort in Vietnam in 1968.

    The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth directly challenged Kerry’s reputation as a war hero. They argued that his service had been less than distinguished, and they said what the US media would not–that Kerry had, in effect, betrayed his fellow servicemen by consorting with North Vietnamese in Paris. This counter-narrative made it much easier to rebut Kerry’s strategy for the Iraq War–Bush could say that Kerry was wrong about “staying the course in Iraq” more effectively because Kerry’s “hero” reputation had been called into question.

    In hindsight, Kerry was wrong about Iraq, whether or not he was a hero in Vietnam. The US “surge” pulled that country out of a spiral of violence. The “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” attacked Kerry’s heroism, not his military wisdom–but I would say that Kerry’s military mistake was big enough to make me glad he lost the election of 2004.

    With that background information, I COULD move on to apply the “swiftboat” analogy to the global warming campaign in a very different way than Ken has suggested, but I’ll leave that alternative paradigm as an exercise for the reader.

    (And, yes, I used the word “paradigm” on purpose to twit Ken. Sorry. Couldn’t resist!)


  2. I see Juan Cole on television quite often–every week or two. He is a decent man, but he’s a political commentator who is well to the left of the American political spectrum. I would LOVE to have every scientist follow his advice to start a blog, but I don’t think it would achieve the results he wants.

    If only I could find a blog by a practicing climate scientist! There are TONS of questions I’d like to ask in all sincerity–but if every person like me had access to a trained professional, the comment thread would NOT run in favor of the AGW consensus. Instead, “skeptics” would predictably ask a range of questions, including many that lie outside that professional’s area of expertise. The expert could then (a) truthfully respond, “I don’t know anything about that subject,” (b) ignore the question (raising doubts about his expertise), or (c) run off to “Skeptical Science” or some other site to find the stock answer. If he chooses that last response, the well-informed skeptic would come back with more specific questions on that point, which will eventually drive the expert back to answer (a) or non-answer (b), resulting in a loss of credibility. It’s not FAIR to the scientist, of course, but whoever said that blogging was supposed to be “fair”?

    From what I have seen of him on television, Juan Cole doesn’t seem to know much about the AGW debate, the dynamics of blogging, or the limitations of practicing scientists. His advice is well-intentioned, but, we all know where good intentions take us!


  3. Scott – I think you are allowing your political viewpoints to interfere. Whatever your poltics surely you can see what swiftboating means and that it is going on here wuith the anti-science atacks, the attempts to discredit honest science and destory the respect most people have for science.

    Scott – you haven’t been trying very hard, have you, to find blogs written by climate scientists.

    Have a lok at Real Cmite. Michael Mann writes there from time to time. Or the Aussie Deltoid. Have a lok at NZ’s Hot Topic.

    There are plenty of such blogs around but from the your political viewpoint as express in the previous comment I suspect they just aren’t part of your normal community. Overwhelmingly conservative blogs and media sources seem to be in the denier mode and often very hostile to science.

    Of course comment threads may not run in favour of science. They often do on this blog because of the denier campaign. But they hardly reflect the real world. And any objective observer can easily see their anti-science hysteria. In the end that discredits them (One reason I don’t censor such commenters normally – their silliness shows through).

    I have just been at a convention with several scientific speakers and a general science-sympatheic audience. I didn’t come across any of this hysterical climate denial or anti-science. Quite the opposite.

    A “well-informed sceptic”, if they are honest, is not hysterical. They don’t rant on in a meaningless way. They don’t make wild claims. And in the large majority of cases they don’t deny climate change.


  4. If only I could find a blog by a practicing climate scientist!

    It’s easy to find climate scientists with blogs.
    However, they won’t tell you what you want to hear.
    That’s why you can’t seem to “find them”.
    The denialosphere has a noticable dearth of climate scientists on their side.
    Pathetic really.
    Plenty of retired engineers and TV weathermen and kooks with Phd’s and economists and various “analysts”.
    Yet actual working climate scientists?
    Slim to none.

    The working climate scientists that are out there are in support of the science of global warming.

    That’s why the deniers end up with the scrag ends when they want to trot out their “experts”.

    Coal chemists in their late eighties.
    TV weathermen that never completed university.
    Retired scientists that have worked for thirty years promoting the healthy aspects of cigarette smoking.

    Working climate scientists?
    Good luck with that.

    However, it’s wrong to obsess about individual scientists. Focus on the collective communities of climate scientists.
    The field of climate science is vast and encompasses all of the Earth Science disciplines.
    One single scientist is not going to be able to answer all questions.
    Go for the team effort.
    They are out there and they want to share their discoveries with the general public….
    Here are some links that are dead easy to understand without being patronizing.

    Pay careful attention to the climate change dashboard
    The AAAS Global Climate Change Resources.
    (Tonnes of layman-friendly information there. All of it compiled by the best experts in their respective fields. It doesn’t get better that the AAAS.)

    Want to know what the UK’s top scientists are saying about climate change? Glad you asked. Turns out that they all went off and made a whole stack of videos on that very subject. Short, to-the-point and very informative.
    Courtesy of the Royal Meterological Society.

    Scott, you mentioned before about clams and climate.
    Well, you might be interested in the link between shellfish in general and climate change.
    Here’s the story (courtesy of NOAA)…


  5. Ken, I read RealClimate every day, and read the top “call to action” post on ClimateDebateDaily daily. They have been helpful. I’d love more recommendations if you’ve got them.


  6. If you want to talk about “Swift Boating” Ken, perhaps you can explain the dishonest little meeting in Wellington last week thinking up new PR strategies to manipulate public opinion, as disclosed here:



  7. Richard Christie

    As usual Wishart’s blog post contains hyperbole and misrepresentation.
    For example Wishart claims Lowe “claimed Hurricane Katrina was clearly caused by climate change”.

    Lowe claimed no such thing.
    Lowe said that the severity of Katrina was due to unusual warmness of the gulf of Mexico at the time and that for twenty five years science has been predicting increased intensity of such events as a direct result of increased sea surface temperatures. He said that in a rational world the increased occurrence of such events, such as Katrina, would be seen as convincing evidence of climate change.

    Sorry Wishart, when appling a reality and a comprehension check to Lowe’s comments your claim fails.

    I’m not bothered to admit that once I realised that, I was perfectly justified in dismissing the rest of the post as a waste of my time.


  8. Christe, as I pointed out over at TBR, you are today’s nominee as village idiot.

    I didn’t post the entire audio grab as it was long, but Lowe went on to say:

    “Disasters that are clearly attributable to climate change should increase awareness and political pressure to do something but Hurricane Katrina is a worry in that context because it clearly didn’t produce that stimulus in the US.”

    Of course, this was implicit in the grab I did publish (obviously, because he went on to say the quote above) so I would be checking your own comprehension shortcomings if I were you.

    Game, set, prat.


  9. Richard Christie

    “I didn’t post the entire audio grab as it was long”

    Rubbish, the other audio you posted is several times longer.

    “Disasters that are clearly attributable to climate change should increase awareness and political pressure to do something but Hurricane Katrina is a worry in that context because it clearly didn’t produce that stimulus in the US.”

    Yet another cherry pick.
    Post the whole audio segment Wishart.


  10. Do what I had to do, find it yourself.

    It’s precisely because I had other grabs to process, and a limit on Typepad’s upload capacity, that I didnt waste time uploading two grabs on the same subject.

    It’s not a cherry pick, as you can see from his linkage to Katrina being “clearly attributable to climate change”, so I’m glad we agree that Katrina wasn’t caused by climate change.

    Now you can see why I called this Peter Griffin-organised stunt “dishonest”.


  11. Ian – your link is to a local site well known for swiftboating science. The unwarranted attacks on our honest scientists at NIWA are a clear example of this. I wouldn’t waste my time with your link.

    The meeting (if it occurred) may have been interesting. I’ll follow it up in due time using reliable sources, thanks.


  12. This from a man who boasted he was holding NIWA “to the same account” as sceptics, then couldn’t front with any email traffic proving he’d asked NIWA even one tough question.



  13. Richard Christie

    What? all a sudden the audio dries up?

    Lets recap.

    Lowe’s comment on the immediate cause of the severity of Katrina is rational and based in physics of weather .

    His comment on the prediction from climate scientists regarding the increased frequency of such energetic events is factual and again, it is rationally based in physics.

    You make the claim that Lowe says Katrina is “caused” by “climate change”. That is irrational.

    Katrina was caused by temperature differentials in weather systems and by atmospheric heat engines. Lowe knows that. He was talking about its severity.

    You supplied audio that fails to support your claim. When it is pointed out your original material didn’t support your claim you topped the stunt off by producing further (incomplete) material that again does not support your claim.

    In the latter quote you provide Lowe says that disasters attributable to climate change should increase pressure to deal with climate change. [A note for the slow, its extreme weather events that cause disasters, not “normal” weather]

    From the earlier comments from Lowe the final sentence in this second quote imply that Katrina’s extreme severity (i.e. it was a disaster) should be considered in similar light. However Katrina’s severity didn’t result any increase in awareness of the (predicted) consequences of climate warming. The mechanism linking Katrina’s severity to climate change was clearly outlined by Lowe in the earlier audio.

    Nothing outrageous, no smoking gun here.

    Wishart, if you had written Lowe that claimed that the likelihood of an increased frequency of extreme events such as Katrina is caused by climate change you would have more accurately represented his comments.

    But that claim has no straw man value to you.


  14. Christie…like I said. Village idiot.


  15. The context of the question Lowe was answering was the need for some more extreme “catastrophic” events that could be attributed to climate change, in order for the media to hype up the threat and get public opinion back on track.

    This led to Lowe lamenting that the Mozambique floods of 95 had not happened in the US so they could be used in such a PR way (even though we all know ‘weather is not climate’). He then pointed out that even disasters “clearly attributable to climate change” such as Katrina “in that context” were not having the desired impact on the public psyche.

    He clearly pings cites Katrina in the context of a disaster “clearly attributable to climate change”. To get a different meaning from plain English requires mental contortions of denialism of the kind I only see at blogs like this and Hot Topic.


  16. Richard Christie

    “Christie…like I said. Village idiot.”

    Give it up, you show yourself up for you what you are.


  17. About Hurricane Katrina…

    “Weather isn’t climate,” folks.

    Katrina was a big storm that landed in the worst possible place (the New Orleans levees), not proof of climate change. Anybody who says it proves climate change is selling something other than science.


  18. Richard Christie

    “Anybody who says it proves climate change is selling something other than science.”

    Quite right Scott, but that’s what Wishart is desperately trying to misrepresent Lowe as saying.

    Lowe is merely noting that increased occurrence o0f extreme weather events is consistent with climate change science and that Katrina should give cause to think about that.


  19. “Quite right Scott, but that’s what Wishart is desperately trying to misrepresent Lowe as saying. “

    Isn’t that a characteristic of swifboating?


  20. Richard Christie

    > > “Quite right Scott, but that’s what Wishart is desperately trying to misrepresent Lowe as saying. “

    > Isn’t that a characteristic of swifboating?

    Yeah, OK.
    I concede that we ought to thank Wishart for his timely illustration of the subject of the original post.

    Thank you Mr Wishart.


  21. Just keep taking the denial pills guys…


  22. Just keep taking the denial pills guys…

    No, Ian.
    You are the denialist.
    NASA is not lying to you.
    There is no global conspiracy of scientists out to “get ya”.

    The scientists are not lying to you about biology and they’re not lying to you about climatology.

    Don’t fight reality. Reality always wins in the end.


  23. “Reality always wins in the end”

    Yeah, that’d be why the majority of the world is giving up belief in MMGW….

    Yet another inconvenient truth, Cedders


  24. … that’d be why the majority of the world is giving up belief in MMGW…

    Reality is not defined by opinion poll.

    The scientific community still says that AGW is happening.
    Just ask NASA.
    NASA does not deal in “belief”.

    That’s for religious nutters.

    NASA and the global community of scientists deal in science.

    Science is the study of…reality.

    The general public might not understand the mechanics of modern biology or the Periodic table or the moon landings but…they happened.

    You don’t get to vote in your own reality.
    Reality doesn’t care.

    Stop lying to yourself and your family, Wishybabes!


  25. Anybody who lived through the Katrina episode in the US should remember how THOROUGHLY that disaster was exploited for political purposes. At the time, I had no particular take on the global warming argument, but I still remember wincing at the direct claims that the very EXISTENCE of Hurricane Katrina was Bush’s fault, over and above the federally-funded levees that failed and the unimpressive federal response to it.

    Cedric, it seems like you’re from the States. Did you have a position on Katrina at the time? If so, did you insist that “weather isn’t climate,” or did you jump on the bash-Bush bandwagon?


  26. Cedric, it seems like you’re from the States.

    I’m a big fan of the U.S.A but…no, I’m not from there.
    Did you have a position on Katrina at the time?

    At the time? Can’t honestly remember.
    Probably not.

    I know nothing about hurricanes.

    Hurricance Katrina? Hmm.
    What should I do to find out about hurricanes considering that…

    1) I’m smart and stunningly well-educated but…freely acknowledge never, ever having done any scientific research on hurricanes in my life.
    2) Hurricane research is probably kinda complicated and I don’t want to get my science information from a fraud or dumbass.
    3) There are plenty of frauds and dumbasses around. Smooth-talking frauds and dumbasses with their own blogs that look oh-so-convincing.

    Well, I’ll…

    (Guess my information source…before you click the link. No cheating. Guess!)

    So, how did you do? If your answer was correct then, congratulations, you have just figured out my technique on how I normally get all my science information on various subjects.
    (Or at least, you have seen how I begin.)

    It’s works very well for medical information too.
    (And no, I’m not a doctor either).

    “…weather isn’t climate…”

    That’s very true.
    Helpful Link On That Very Subject.

    Lowe understands that weather is not climate.
    Richard is correct in pointing out that Wishart deceitfully misrepresents Lowe.

    Scott, please switch on your comments back on at your blog. It will probably encourage traffic.


  27. @Cedric. I think that again you are hitting the right note here.

    Focusing on where people get their information, and who they trust seems to be to be both very topical with this issue, but also very important with so many issues.

    I would go even further, and say that I think this could well be fundamental to the operation of our democracies. If the voting public really thinks that the likes of Ian Wishart etal are credible sources of information on scientific issues, then we all have a very big problem.


  28. Cedric. I think that again you are hitting the right note here.

    Aw shucks. Twern’t nuttin’.
    (…Blushes bashfully…)
    I learned from the best.
    My professors at Uni were brutal about citations and sources in marking essays.
    Plus I’ve spent several fun-filled years of lurking at the Pandasthumb.org
    The similarites between how “Intelligent Design” markets itself and how “Climate Denialism” markets itself are staggering.

    In the forum section called “After the Bar Closes” I love reading how the professionals eagerly rip into the nonsense of “Intelligent Design”.
    Now those guys are AWESOME! Endless amusement.


  29. …is this blog an example of said swiftboating?

    Lets think:
    1) who is trying to dishonestly discredit who?
    2)Who are the political and business interests served by this discrediting?

    If you answered:
    1) well known scientists are discretiting people they have never heard of.
    2) the anti-fossil fuel lobby with its vested interest in sustainable energy, although without much funding to back up their crazy ideas about energy conservation.

    then if YOU want to start your own blog you might even get some support from interested third parties.


  30. …is this blog an example of said swiftboating?

    Lets think

    We already have. The last comment on this thread was over a year ago. You should try to catch up.
    Speaking in lists of questions and building strawmen will get you nowhere.
    If you have an argument to make, then make it.


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