Over at Discover Magazine Intersection Blog, Chris Mooney is defending the paper I critiqued a couple of days ago as if it contains some actual solid science. He’s griping that I didn’t read the full paper (which was pay-walled), and thus my critique is invalid. What Mooney doesn’t realize is that he’s committed the same mistake as the authors of the paper, who clearly don’t understand what a “website” is or is not in the context of its connection to broad human interaction.
One only has to read the abstract though, to realize this paper isn’t about science at all, but about politics. here is is:
ASTROTURFING GLOBAL WARMING:
IT ISN’T ALWAYS GREEN ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FENCE
Astroturf organizations are fake grassroots organizations usually sponsored by large corporations to support any arguments or claims in their favor, or to challenge and deny those against them. They constitute the corporate version of grassroots social movements, which proactively connect people locally with the aim to foster pro-social and pro-environmental issues. Serious ethical and societal concerns underline the astroturfing practice, especially if corporations are successful in influencing public opinion by borrowing a social movement approach. This study is motivated by this very issue and examines the effectiveness of astroturf organizations in the global warming context, wherein large corporate polluters have an incentive to set up astroturf organizations to undermine the importance of human activities in climate change. We conduct an experiment to determine whether astroturf organizations’ websites impact the level of user certainty about the causes of global warming. Results show that people who used astroturf websites became more uncertain about the existence of global warming and humans’ role in the phenomenon than people who used the grassroots website. Astroturf organizations are hence successful in their promotion of business interests over environmental protection. Aside from the multiple business ethics issues it raises, the astroturfing strategy poses a significant threat to the legitimacy of the grassroots movement.
From my perspective, this reads more like an opinion piece than a scientific abstract. So with Springerlink asking $34.95 for something that reads like an article on HuffPo, why would anyone bother? I sure didn’t, because unlike Mooney, I’m not paid to blog, I don’t have a budget. If I subscribed to every journal that issues press releases without the benefit of the actual paper, I’d be in the poor house. The issuance of press releases making PR claims while the peer reviewed paper is held hostage for money has long been a sore point for me and others, especially when public funding is involved. It smacks of elitism and leaves the general public out of the loop.
Fortunately though, reader and regular contributor “Just the Facts” found a copy of the paper elsewhere and posted the link to it in comments. Here it is:
Here’s an open access version of the paper:
I had a look later in the day at the full paper, and it reinforced the impression that I got from the abstract that this isn’t a science paper, but just another political hit piece disguised as one.
Here’s a few points from the paper that led me to that conclusion:
This investigation is motivated largely by the denialism, and more specifically the astroturfing, phenomenon described above.
As discussed above, this case of faking a grassroots
movement is called astroturfing. Hoggan and Littlemore (2009) simply define an astroturf group as a “fake grassroots organization animated by a clever public relations campaign and a huge budget” (p. 36). A commonly cited example of astroturfing activities often mentioned in the general media is the alleged large-scale campaign and funding support from ExxonMobil Corporation toward creating and funding “think tanks” that spread false information about global warming and climate change science
(Greenpeace USA, 2007).
The citations for the second paragraph are:
Hoggan, J. and Littlemore, R. (2009). Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming. Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books.
Greenpeace USA. (2007). ExxonMobil’s Continued Funding of Global Warming Denial Industry. Available at http://www.greenpeace.org.
Gosh, for a second there I thought it was an IPCC publication. So, with references like that, Chris Mooney’s employer DeSmog Blog, (which is run by James Hoggan’s PR outfit in Canada) one really can’t take this as science when it is so tightly interwoven with politically motivated and paid for flak.
So, knowing that, I thought nothing more of the paper since I first posted on it, until Mr. Mooney decided he had to defend it today. His defense is that the fake (as I called them) “websites” weren’t actually online for the public to see, and thus “no harm done”.
He writes (and continue from there to DeSmog Blog):
The fake web sites were not on-line in a way that permitted viewing by the general public. They only existed within the computer system used for the experiment. The only people who saw the web sites and answered the survey questions were the participants recruited for the study.
In other words, an Intranet. Wikipedia delineates that as:
An intranet can be understood as a private analog of the Internet.
Note the abstract of the paper states:
We conduct an experiment to determine whether astroturf organizations’ websites impact the level of user certainty about the causes of global warming.
Note the word “website”, which appears 56 times in the full paper. The word “Internet” appears once, in the bibliography, and the word “Intranet” does not appear in the paper at all. Why wouldn’t they mention that the study was conducted on a private Intranet and not on the World Wide Web?
And way back on page 15, once you get past all the wordy opinion about denial, Exxon-Mobil, astroturfing, and the like, we find the experimental procedure:
The experimental task and questionnaire were completed in a lab setting creating a realistic environment for viewing website disclosures and allowing individuals to complete the experiment on their own time in a natural context (Bryant, Hunton and
The experimental task first consisted of answering a series of questions about opinions, knowledge and concern levels on various social issues (homelessness, racism, fair trade, and global warming). To disguise the purpose of the experiment,
participants were told that the purpose of the research was a marketing experiment about effective website design for social issues. Participants were told they would be randomly assigned to view a website related to one of these social issues. The next step was to visit a given website and read some information related to global warming issues contained within the various links of the assigned website. These websites were designed expressly for the experiment and were based on an extensive review of real-world grassroots and astroturf websites relative to the types of global warming-related information commonly provided by these two types of websites. This provided a high level of internal validity, while keeping the task externally valid as well.
Well I don’t know about you, but if you want to learn about something in the wild, you generally study it the in wild. What we have here are manufactured, “fake” websites, running on an Intranet (apparently, according to Mooney’s query of the authors). And generally, when I hear about a study on websites as applied to real websites viewed on the world wide web, I expect the study would be about real world websites, not one limited to a lab fishbowl.
As I see it, this would be like doing Jane Goodall like studies of wild chimpanzees based on chimp-robots made to look like chimpanzees, confined in the lab, and studying how they interact with students who are told they aren’t actual chimpanzees, but disguised as marketing salesmen.
In other words, they didn’t study websites in the wild , but copied wild ones and manufactured “tame” ones of their own design that never left the lab. Even Chris Mooney at one time understood what that “wild” aspect of the Internet means, though it appears he has forgotten since writing this about the Internet in his book Unscientific America on page 115:
So Mooney “gets it” about the wild nature of the Internet, and he more than anyone should understand that you don’t study fake manufactured websites on an Intranet and then use that data to draw conclusions about the Internet at large, for the same reason animal behavior scientists don’t study animals in the zoo to get a clue about what they actually do in the wild.
The Internet is dynamic, changing every minute, with many websites like this in the study changing hourly. The authors make no mention of trying to reproduce that dynamic to get a representative sample.
So in a nutshell, the paper
Astroturfing Global Warming: It Isn’t Always Greener on the Other Side of the Fence
Is mostly political hokum, and given the level of rhetoric used in the peer reviewed paper, I have serious doubts that the researchers were capable of separating their own political bias when it came to creating those Intranet websites used in the study. I think confirmation and other biases loom large in this. The funding source was not disclosed either.
Further, Chris Mooney’s defense of the paper is most likely rooted in the fact that his current employer, DeSmog Blog aka Hoggan and Associates is heavily cited in the paper.
I will apologize to Chris Mooney though for calling him a “kid blogger” based on that youthful photo he uses. It just seemed so much more cuddly (he looks amiable and likable in it) than calling him a schill blogger.