Post #1319: Use of the semi-attached figure: COVID-denial and climate-change-denial propaganda

Posted on November 10, 2021

There is an entire line of disinformation about global warming that works like this:

  1. Find any indicator of climate change that isn’t hitting a new high this year.  E.g., global average temperature.
  2. Point to that decline and and contrast it to the increase in atmospheric C02 (which reliably hits a new high every year).
  3. When that indicator begins hitting new highs again, find something else.
  4. Repeat.

For a while, it was all about “the hiatus” in global warming (Forbes, NOAA), until that turned out to be literally imaginary.  The news outlets that touted “the hiatus” simply don’t talk about global temperature now.  A common alternative target for this style of propaganda is summer arctic sea ice extent, where you will reliably see Fox News coverage in any year in which the sea ice extent increases.  (Despite a clear long-term downward trend, consistent with (duh) a much warmer Arctic).  Weirdly, for a while, when the Arctic summer ice was clearly falling, denialists focused on winter antarctic ocean ice cover (which, unlike the arctic summer ice cover, has no strong implications for the future of warming and is more-or-less unrelated to summer arctic ocean ice cover).  Focused on that, except in years when the winter antarctic ice cover is below the peak.  At which time, then turn to some other target of opportunity.

When done properly, everything said in such propaganda pieces is true.  Some years, global temperatures fall, compared to the prior record.  Every year, atmospheric C02 goes up. True facts.

But these pieces are, nevertheless, propaganda.  The are disinformation designed to persuade readers to believe something that isn’t true.  The disinformation works due to the careful cherry-picking of the data point shown and the use of the semi-attached figure of one year of C02 increase.  It’s left up to the reader to make the incorrect inference (that the theory behind global warming requires temperatures to increase in yearly lockstep with annual increases in C02, so this contrary fact disproves global warming).  Many willingly do so.

The details don’t matter here, it’s the basic technique that I’m trying to emphasize.  Any time series of data that shows temporary ups-and-downs (or seasonal changes, or cross-sectional differences) is a potential propaganda tool.  Cherry-pick the right data points, tack on the semi-attached figures, and the result is a steady stream of propaganda pieces that give the impression of something (e.g., that data are always contradicting the scientific consensus on global warming) without actually telling actionable lies about it.

And I guess it goes without saying that Fox News is the master of this tactic.  Near as I can tell, the only information about global warming that makes it onto Fox News is propaganda of that sort.  They’re silent on the vast majority of studies and information that reinforce the scientific consensus (the planet is warming rapidly, we’re causing it), and highlight any piece of information that can be made to seem as if it contradicts that consensus.

And, once you’ve seen it enough times in one context (global warming), it jumps off the page when you see it in other contexts. 

Again, to review the method:

  1. Find any relevant data series that goes up and down.
  2. Cherry-pick a time where the data are trending the way you like.
  3. Tack on the semi-attached figure.
  4. Leave it to the reader to make the incorrect causal link between the two.

With that as introduction, look at the Fox headline above and tell me what you’re supposed to believe, based on that. 

Did you come up with “well, that proves that masks don’t work, doesn’t it”?  From which you have to move on to “mask mandates don’t work”.  And so, obviously, based on that, we don’t need mask mandates.  Why would any idiot think that mask mandates had any purpose?

Let me now illustrate what you should have gotten out of that headline:

Data source for this and other graphs of new case counts:  Calculated from The New York Times. (2021). Coronavirus (Covid-19) Data in the United States. Retrieved 11/10/2021, from”  The NY Times U.S. tracking page may be found at

As an Extras for Experts, note the critical timing here.  As little as two weeks ago, they couldn’t have written that headline.  Four weeks ago, they’d have to have written it the other way around.  Give it another four weeks, and I’m betting they wouldn’t be able to write that.  But for this brief time window, they can write that headline, and it’s a fact.  Four weeks from now, this will have been forgotten.  And they’ll have found another target of opportunity for their next piece of propaganda.

But why?

A lot of rational people, particularly scientists, have a hard time understanding why anyone would bother to produce (or consume) this continual stream of propaganda.

To me, having seen this time and again, and having run up against it with my ultra-conservative older brother, the answer is simple.  It’s all about faith and belief, and has nothing to do with science.

In a nutshell, for most people, when facts conflict with faith, you must deny the facts.  It really doesn’t go any deeper than that.  It’s not intrinsically different from the Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo for the heresy of claiming that the earth moved around the sun.

In my brother’s case, anything that would require deviating from orthodox political conservatism must be dismissed.  It’s not that he is anti-science, per se.  It’s that he works backwards from the policy implications.  If the science implies policies that conflict with his political faith, then the science must be denied. 

It really is that simple.

There are two types of people.

For some, facts and reason determine what their course of action should be.  And if rationality conflicts with faith, then faith has to change in light of the facts.  For others, faith determines their course of action.  And if facts and reason get in the way of that, those facts and that reasoning must be denied, so that faith remains unchallenged.

And so, broadly speaking, that “faith based community” creates a tremendous demand for hearing only what they want to hear.  Free markets will supply anything that is demanded.  The result is entire industries devoted to satisfying that demand for “facts” that match faith.

Back in the objective world, the fact is, the earth is warming.  That’s primarily due to a buildup of an incredibly stable gas (C02) in the atmosphere, faster than the ecosphere can absorb it.  The C02 comes from burning fossil fuels at a rapid rate.  The overwhelming consensus of informed opinion is that this process isn’t going to end well for civilization.

Fact is, masks work to reduce spread of COVID-19.  (And other airborne illnesses, for that matter.)  A high-quality mask (e.g., N95 respirator) works better than a low-quality mask.  But, all other things being equal, the higher the fraction of the population wearing masks in situations with non-negligible risk of disease spread (indoor public spaces), the lower the spread of COVID-19 will be.

If your faith bars you from considering anything but individual action, motivated by individual incentives, then these facts are inconvenient.  That’s because the most effective ways to stop C02 emissions, and to stop COVID-19 spread, require coordinated action that cannot be achieved by person-level free-market incentives. (Or, at least, none that have ever been proposed as feasible.)

As with the Catholic church and a heliocentric solar system, a lot of people maintain some sort of faith that requires that they must declare such actions to be heresy.   Those people need someone to feed them the disinformation that will allow their faith to remain unchallenged.  And one way or the other, the dollars behind that demand support the sort of mainstream disinformation highlighted at the top of this post.

It’s not that people are too dumb to know the difference.  It’s that they don’t care, and they actively crave the disinformation. 

And as a result, we have a fully-developed denial industry.  Literally the same entities that helped deny that smoking causes cancer were hired to help deny that combustion of fossil fuel causes global warming.

Given that, it’s really no surprise that the same techniques keep showing up.  In this case, the technique is to take any time-varying data, and pop up with a bit of disinformation during any brief period when the numbers are running your way.  Remain silent when the numbers aren’t in your favor.  And keep changing targets, because nobody in your target audience will even hold you to task for anything you’ve ever said.

I’d like to say that people will eventually figure that out.  But they won’t.  To the contrary, it’s not that the propaganda causes their non-factual beliefs.  It’s that they actively seek the disinformation that agrees with their faith.  They take comfort in it.  And the rest of us just have to live with the results, as best we can.