Hey! It’s me, your old friend, the climate change denying crackpot you love to hate, Tony Heller. It’s been a while since I’ve written, I know. Maniacally rehashing the same bogus climate change talking points on social media is all-consuming. But I’m pleased to report everything is going swimmingly despite hitting a few bumps in the road from time to time. More on this in a bit.
So people always come up to me and ask, “Hey Tony, what’s it’s like fighting in the trenches against the evil liberal scientists seeking to destroy our way of life?” If I’m honest (just pretend), I tell them that while my lifestyle may look glamorous, it isn’t without its hazards. People are always trying to expose me for the intellectual fraud that I am. Usually it’s not a problem. When adversaries start embarrassing me with solid science, I call them a moron and immediately block their Twitter account. And even if they land a few hard blows, it doesn’t matter. Like Trump, my loyal followers are blind to my sociopathy because they share my hatred for progressives and liberals. Always remember that irrational thinking beats logic every time with the morons. It’s been one of the keys to my success.
Recently, however, I screwed up. It started late last year when a once-famous cartoonist issued a challenge to his Twitter followers and asked them to provide a link to the most persuasive links “arguing that CO2 is raising temperatures at a dangerous pace.” One of the responses linked to a video called “Climate Change — the scientific debate,” by a YouTuber named “potholer54” (aka Peter Hadfield).
Always looking for opportunities to expand my audience and get exposure, I produced a rebuttal video to potholer54 entitled, “Debunking the Debunker” (so clever!). True to form, I acted like an asshole, saying stuff like, “He speaks very quickly and sounds very convincing like he knows what he’s talking about. Now I’m going to show you, that he doesn’t.” I also lied about what was in his video by saying he made claims that he didn’t and that he didn’t say things he actually did. As you’ll see, making the rebuttal video is a decision I would soon come to regret.
It turns out potholer54 has over 176,000 subscribers on YouTube alone, which is 3.5x more than my Twitter and YouTube followers combined. And, just like me, he has a science degree in geology. He also has decades of experience as a science journalist and does work for the BBC which means he knows how to research and cite legitimate scientific papers. And so unfortunately for me, some of his followers saw my video and encouraged him to respond to my “Debunkers” video. Dammit!
Now usually, a knowledgeable person with better things to do would take a look at my body of work and immediately write me off as someone not worth his or her time. But no, not potholer54. The guy makes science explainer videos as a hobby. He’s almost as maniacal as me except he actually knows climate science and isn’t a dishonest schmuck. Plus he’s on YouTube, so there’s no way for me to block him. Godammit!
Sure enough, potholer54 eviscerated me with a video response. My whiny, annoying nasal tone was no match for his polished, British accent that made it possible for him to sound condescending without actually being condescending. Even worse, he was polite in the face of my obvious misrepresentations of his video. I couldn’t just yell at him and call him a moron or I’d look like a total dick. Shit!
Unfortunately, I had to respond or else I’d lose serious face. I immediately released a second video, “Potholer Vs. Real Science”. At this point, my strategy was to basically ignore the lies of mine he uncovered and distract everyone by starting with a basic lesson on Milankovitch Cycles. This makes me look like a good guy for teaching people what they might not know (even though it’s climate science 101) and it reinforces the idea I’m a knowledgeable person, even though I’m not. After that segment, I attack potholer54 as a charlatan by claiming he uses “appeals to authority” to deceive viewers. I know my audience hates authority figures so this is my ace in the hole. No matter what potholer54 comes back with, painting him as a liberal sheep blindly eating up whatever scientists tell him to believe will discredit him with my followers. In the video, I lay it on thick by saying the phrase “professional researcher” with dripping sarcasm. I also get super condescending, saying things like, “I’m going to explain this again very simply and hopefully this time even potholer will be able to understand.” Finally, I do lots of hand waving and dismiss his claims as “junk science.” These kinds of techniques work with my followers because they are not interested in a legitimate scientific debate. They are looking for a political boxing match. They want to see me smash this smug Brit in the face.
I knew potholer54 probably wasn’t going away and I was right. He came back with another strong point-by-point rebuttal to my attacks. Once again, he was impeccably British and thorough while I came across as a dismissive, American asshat. Even worse, he didn’t take my suggestion that we should stop making videos. So I was stuck making another video. Fuck!
Not being able to defeat him with facts, I repeated my bogus claim that potholer54 relied on appeals to authority by naming my video “Science Vs. Appeal To Authority.” I then ate up some time with a useless lesson about amplifier feedback and related it back to Milankovitch Cycles. It was total bullshit, but my audience wouldn’t know any better. I wrapped things up with another attack on his “appeals to authority” and threw in some quotes from Feynman and Galileo to sound like I was in the rational thinking camp. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Finally, I told my viewers that he wimped out of a real-time debate with me. I knew that would make me look like the fearless one even though I desperately wanted the YouTube debate to a close. A careful, thoughtful exchange was clearly not giving me an advantage over someone who actually had their shit together as one of the commenters rightly pointed out:
“You believe you can point out potholers fallacies in real time in a live debate but you’ve repeatedly demonstrated you are unable to effectively counter his arguments when you have all the time in the world to research your videos. You want a live debate because you are more interested in winning a rhetoric battle than a genuinely intellectual one.”
Ouch! Unfortunately, it didn’t end there.
As I expected, potholer54 finished me off with a knockout blow that punched a gaping hole in my “appeals to authority” attack by carefully pointing out that citing research papers isn’t an appeal to authority but is, in fact, the very basis for conducting modern science. He also shot my feedback analogy in an audio amplification system full of holes and explained why it was relevant. And so there I was, completely, utterly flattened by potholer.
Humans are bags of meat. Atop this bag sits a gelatinous electrochemical information processor the bag needs to help find nourishment to sustain itself, protect it from danger, and produce new bags of meat. The processor, what we call the “brain,” is very adept at recognizing patterns which we refer to as “ideas.” Ideas can have profound effects on the brain and give rise to emotions such as joy, fear, anxiety, love, excitement, boredom, lust, hate, curiosity and so forth. Though we don’t fully understand the scientific underpinnings of emotions, we know that they can provoke extremely powerful physical responses in the bags of meat they are attached to which in turn influences the state of the brain and the emotions it feels, thereby creating a tightly bound feedback loop between what we have traditionally referred to as “body, mind and soul.”
Generally speaking, the more successful our minds are at finding patterns and generating the proper emotional response to affect the body in a manner to properly respond to these patterns, the more likely and longer the body it’s attached to can thrive. If, for example, the idea of food provokes an emotion of fear, the meat bag associated with the brain generating that emotion is not long for this world. If the idea of intercourse brings no imagined sense of pleasure, the body will be far less likely to engage in the activity. And so emotions, coupled with the ideas that drive them, are critical phenomena to our well-being. We need to be able to recognize the patterns that inspire the right emotions at the right time in order to be successful biological entities.
Now, complex brains have the ability to associate different patterns with one another if they occur at the same time in the brain. This allows the brain to think abstractly and communicate with other brains.
For example, if the brain is exposed enough times to the same aural stimuli generated by a vocalized grunt at the same time it gets exposed to visual stimuli generated by a clear, odorless liquid on the ground, that grunt can come to mean “water.” If this happens enough times, a single grunt will conjure up the electrochemical patterns representing water inside the brains of those who hear it even if there is no water in sight. We can imagine crude grunts slowly evolving into sophisticated oral language as the pre-human brain grew in capacity. A language is simply the symbolic representation of the ideas inside of our heads in aural form.
More recently, humans learned how to purposefully manipulate objects in order to symbolize ideas. Cave drawings, totem poles, pictographs and written language are physical representations of the electrochemical patterns stored inside of our brains. Anything can become a symbol and, in turn, these symbols can generate very specific kinds of patterns inside of our brains, which, in turn, can cause us to feel emotions which then, as mentioned earlier, cause our bodies to respond. And so, through this almost mystical process, inanimate objects have the power to provoke physical responses in our bodies.
In general, the more efficiently a group of separate brains can share patterns, the more they can coordinate and cooperate to ensure mutual survival of their associated meat bags. This is what we call “society.” Without the phenomena of idea transference (i.e. communication) you cannot have complex society. Animal brains aren’t equipped to produce very complex pattern associations and they have only crude forms of communication and so are very limited in their ability to cooperate. Humans, however, have the capacity to recognize very complex patterns, associate them with one another easily and share them efficiently using technologically advanced methods of symbol transference. Our brain’s enhanced ability to recognize and associate subtle and sophisticated patterns and communicate them effectively allow us to evolve highly complex societies.
Today, we have a seemingly infinite number of ways for sharing symbols in the physical world: sculpture, painting, books, magazines, television, movies, radio, blogs, social media platforms, virtual reality, websites, memes, etc. The symbols these types of media deliver to us each contain other symbols that we can deconstruct and try to find meaning and patterns that resonate with existing patterns in our brains. Sometimes the symbolism is easy to determine while other times it happens at a wholly unconscious level either on the side of the author, audience or both. Symbols transmitted for a commercial purpose are often intended to delight us or make us feel profound emotions so that we will pay to witness the collection of symbols compiled for us. Advertisements employ highly crafted symbols to try to induce us into exchanging our money symbols for products infused with emotions such as comfort, status, happiness and well-being (beds, cars, soda, health pills).
Symbols have many practical applications, but the generation and deconstruction of symbols is the very fabric of our social beings. Symbols are so fundamental to our survival that we are wired to create and seek them out. Everything from engaging in idle chit chat to creating high art can be a source of great pleasure and satisfaction. Even the way we dress, move, and talk are symbolic. These cues, generated consciously or not, elicit patterns inside the brains of others that tell them, unconsciously or not, if there is reason to coordinate with the other brains they encounter. You have gotten this far in my essay because the symbols contained herein are affecting your brain patterns, creating an emotion inside of you that your brain thinks is worthwhile.
People who have the ability to create symbols that resonate with many brains–or even just the brains of key meat bags that can motivate other meat bags to action–can become powerful actors in a society. Gifted thespians, musicians and other artists can amass fame and fortune for their ability to arouse great emotions with the compelling symbols they generate for our pleasure or edification. Meta symbols–symbols which represent other powerful symbols that stir very strong emotions and desires–are the most powerful kinds of symbols. Money and religious texts are good examples of meta symbols. A person who can control meta symbols can more easily direct the physical actions of many individual meat bags. When the Catholic Church was more or less hegemonic in Europe and the sole arbiter of what was good and evil according to the meta symbol of the The Bible, the Pope was at the peak of his power. A key ingredient to Hitler’s ability to start WW II was figuring out how to attach iconic symbols to feelings of tribalism and ethnic pride.
Political power comes as the result of an accumulation of many other symbols representing physical force and coercion. Kings, dictators, presidents, legislators, judges, armies, weaponry, jails, courts, police, and legislative bodies are all symbols that work together to compel members of a society to behave in ways approved by the society. Political symbols are also often reinforced with money and religious texts to aid in the control of individuals.
So symbols are of extreme importance to a well functioning human society. In fact, they are the foundation for it. Of course, symbols only facilitate coordination so long as they create similar patterns inside the brains of the members within a society. If, for example, a flag representing a society provokes profound pride and cooperation in one half of a society and deep-seated hatred and hostility when flown by the other half, that society is probably in the midst of a civil war or on the verge of starting one.
And so if too many people cannot agree upon a common meaning for the symbols that are shared within the society, it’s a sign that the society is not firing on all cylinders, making coordination more difficult and strife more likely especially when resources are scarce and survival becomes more precarious. That’s not to say the healthiest societies are those where symbols are fixed with permanent meaning and mean the same thing to all individuals. In fact, static, homogenization of symbolic meaning is a very unhealthy state because such society’s are extremely brittle and cannot adapt very well to new problems encountered. A society such as North Korea can be considered a prime example of such a society.
Diversity in the symbolic representation of the world within a population can help it adapt by allowing new ideas to form and spread if they resonate with enough brains or resonate with the brains that control meat bags with power and influence within the society. Diversity of thought and openness to new symbolic representations are characteristics of a society that can overcome new challenges.
In early 21st century America, we are witnessing a recent outbreak of skirmishes around symbols and what they mean. We argue about flying the confederate flag, we argue about what the meaning of “Black Lives Matter” is, and we argue about the burning of the American flag or even what the recently iconic “Pepe the Frog” avatar means. Without understanding the power of symbols, it’s easy to be dismissive about these debates and wonder “What does it matter, they are only symbols, these debates are nothing but tempests in a teapot.” But as we have seen, symbols do matter a great deal. Certain symbols can arouse great passions within us which influence behaviors of individuals in the physical world. If there is enough disagreement over these symbols, it can lead to conflict and even death, as we have recently witnessed by the events in Charlottesville, VA.
Disagreements over symbolic meaning are not new and have been with us since the United States was founded. As an ethnically and politically diverse society where competing symbols often clash, conflict and violence has come to be a mark of American culture. Fortunately, the symbolic foundation of our democracy, the Constitution, has flexibility built into it that allows our society to both change the document’s symbolic meaning and enforce new meanings with political power. It is this very ability that has allowed the United States to not only survive but thrive despite the vast symbolic diversity of its people.
I will return to this thought in a moment. But first, I want to point out that not so long ago, the ability to imbue symbols with power was something reserved only for a select few members of society. At first, kings and priests, who were often one and the same, controlled the political symbols and religious texts giving them vast control over the societies they ruled. As monetary symbols came into existence, those who accumulated money could gain some level of control over society as well. As technology advanced, more and more control over symbols was delivered into the hands of outsiders. Gutenberg single-handedly broke the Catholic Church’s monopoly over religious texts with the printing press. The printing press also ushered in an age of literacy which in turn allowed commoners to share symbols more easily which in turn made it possible for them to coordinate and break King George’s grip over the Americas. The Founding Fathers recognized that the sharing of symbols was key to their victory over the monarchy and so they protected the free exchange of symbols in the form of the First Amendment. Later, in the 19th century, the telegraph made it possible for trains to coordinate over great distances which opened the door for ordinary citizens who controlled the telegraphic infrastructure to accumulate massive amounts of wealth and become influential in society. Newspapers, followed by radio and television provided powerful new ways to disseminate symbols to a mass audience. These symbolic transference technologies also gave rise to the advertising industry to promote the consumption of other symbols. Those who gained control and consolidate the new mass communication technologies garnered considerable influence over society by directly controlling the symbols it consumed.
Although these technologies which spread the power of symbols enabled vast amounts of disruption and changes in the balances of power within society, they are nothing compared to what is coming.
Within the past past twenty-five years, two new technologies arrived that promise to profoundly change our society in ways we cannot yet imagine: the personal computer (including mobile devices) and the Internet. Together, these two advancements give just about anyone the ability to generate and disseminate new symbols to anyone, anywhere. Not only that, these symbols can be generated by groups or individuals lacking any serious authority. As a result, our psyche’s are now bombarded with an explosion of powerful symbols that have made it extraordinarily difficult for us to recognize any particular pattern in the symbols we are exposed to and which patterns deserve serious attention. Navigating this new symbolic space is like the difference between sailing a boat in a well-marked channel with a steady breeze and plowing a vessel through the open seas during a violent maelstrom. Our symbols are losing their reference points making it increasingly difficult for individuals to maintain their psychic bearings. And perhaps more significantly, the ability of symbols to provide social cohesion is getting diluted, making it more likely our society will become unglued and fall apart. As our collective semiotic library is getting more and more balkanized along many different fault lines, our ability to comprehend and “speak to” others who don’t share or agree upon the meaning of our symbols becomes more and more difficult.
Though only roughly twenty-five years deep into the introduction of these two new technologies, we are witnessing their profound impacts on society. First, we see increasing disagreement about which symbols are significant. For example, leaders at the highest level of government tell us that the symbols in scientific research papers that say we are headed for near certain global catastrophe as a result of CO2 emissions should be ignored. Second, we see a huge rise in the challenge of authorities that used to be able to imbue symbols with almost unquestioning power. The authority of news organizations, politicians, government agencies, businesses, unions and other established institutions is under constant attack, undermining their ability to create unifying symbols that help us coordinate. Third, and perhaps most alarmingly, it is increasingly difficult for us to agree on the meaning of symbols. Perhaps the most striking examples is our current and former presidents, Donald Trump and Barack Obama, which highlight the very polarized nature of one of our most powerful symbols, the presidency.
So when we cannot agree on the importance of the symbols, and when we are unwilling to trust many of the authorities creating the symbols, and when we can’t even agree on the meaning of the symbols we do share, what hope is there for us of ever coordinating on a large scale again? Not much, I’m afraid. And I predict we will soon see our founding symbolic document, the Constitution, come under great strain. It’s importance, meaning, and the authority to imbue it with power will come under increasing attack which will eventually lead to chaos because a society that cannot agree on the fundamental meaning of one of its most fundamental symbols cannot possibly function well.
Other society’s which do not place as high of a value on the free creation and exchange of symbols understand the importance of controlling symbols to maintain a functional society. China has gone to great lengths to try to ensure the Internet and computers do not introduce new disruptive symbols into their culture that could undermine the existing power structures. I am not suggesting the United States should follow this path. As I’ve pointed out, the maintenance of symbols from a single authority leads to a very brittle and unhealthy society and usually only to the benefit of the few who maintain those symbols. But it’s ironic to point out that the free flow of symbolic ideas that once gave the United States its strength is now working to directly undermine it.
Collectively, we are only at the beginning of our journey out into the open sea of symbolic flotsam and and jetsam. We can still see the shore behind us and we will still see the beacon of the Enlightenment on the horizon for some time to come. But before too long those will disappear as time places a distance between an age when symbols had meaning and had the power to unify and the coming age when all symbols become mere noise. Perhaps there will be some kind of rescue boat that we will find which can restore the power of symbols for us and hopefully it is a benevolent one. Or, perhaps the death of shared symbols is the next step in human evolution and will open the door for some new extraordinary method of coordinating our actions. Whatever the fix, we better find one of these deus ex machina solutions quick. The open sea does not look very inviting.
My name is Tony Heller (aka Steven Goddard). I’m a professional climate change denier and I use this blog to blow the whistle on myself and others, too.
If you are searching for evidence about how sick, twisted and dysfunctional segments of our society are, look no further than the replies to a series of tweets by journalist/meteorologist and climate change activist Eric Holthaus.
In the tweets, Holtahaus talks about his deep despair and anxiety over the threat of climate change. Then, in typical bully fashion, his tweets were featured on the front page of a right-wing propaganda site, mrcNewsBusters, which flies “Exposing & Combating Liberal Media Bias” on its masthead. While the NewsBuster piece, written by Tom Blumer, ostensibly suggests its readers “pity” Mr. Holthaus, I’m sure Mr. Blumer was well aware of the psychopathic mob that would rush to Mr. Holthaus’ Twitter feed in a gushing, orgiastic display of the very worst aspects of human nature. And that, of course, is precisely what happened. Here’s a small sample from some of the assholes who demonstrate precisely how deplorable they are:
@DayZeesNap Isn't @EricHolthaus thread the most pathetic, hysterical thing you've ever seen? Although I feel a heavy sense of Schadenfreude
My name is Tony Heller (aka Steven Goddard). I’m a professional climate change denier and I use this blog to blow the whistle on myself and others, too.
As we all know, deniers like me love to cherry pick data to bolster our argument. For example, if Arctic sea ice cover is way down we emphasize Antarctic sea ice cover. If ice coverage at both poles is at record lows, as they are now, we talk about something else entirely, like this recent blog post about snow coverage. It’s an endless shell game for us.
This post is the third in a series chronicling my email exchanges with a climate-change-denying, retired dentist who has mistaken me for Tony Heller, a climate denier, and how I am able to lead him down a path toward fascism using the twisted logic of climate change denial as my entry point. If you haven’t read Part 1, or part 2, please do.
In part 2, “Bill,” our unwitting target, had assented to me helping him get his thoughts published to help defend Western Civilization against climate change scientists, progressives and Muslims. Part 3 goes far deeper into the rabbit hole with Bill showing no reluctance accepting my egregiously fascist positions and continues to show eagerness to team up with me.
We pick up Part 3 with this email from Bill which recounts his progression from a Gore voter to a climate change denier and right-wing ideologue and the influences which moved him there:
This post is the second in a series chronicling my engagement with a climate-change-denying, retired dentist who has mistaken me for Tony Heller, a climate denier, and how I am able to lead him down a path toward fascism using the twisted logic of climate change denial as my entry point. If you haven’t read Part I, please do.
So we last left off with our anti-hero, “Bill,” agreeing to fund my fictional scheme by the Trump administration to smear climate scientists. Early this morning, I exchanged more emails with Bill in which I entice him into writing a piece for Tony Heller’s blog (who he thinks he’s talking to). I suggested he should give his account from a Gore supporter in 2000 to where he is today, a willing participant in fascist activities. Bill also reveals how quickly his fascist tendencies are progressing.
Here is the first email I received from Bill (again, the emails have been redacted and lightly edited to hide the original author’s identity):
This blog is a parody of Tony Heller (aka Steven Goddard), a climate change denier who has managed to make a name for himself equipped only with a blog and a Twitter account.
This is the first in a series of posts (read Part 2 and Part 3) that tell the story of how a fan of the real Tony Heller mistook me for the real Tony Heller and how I was subsequently able to get him to agree with and cheer on ridiculously fascist statements in emails I sent to him. I also persuaded him to actively contribute financially to support a fictional covert persecution of climate scientists by the Trump administration. This is not a parody post and the account I give below actually transpired. As this post is not meant to out the person I corresponded with, I have redacted information in the emails that might be used to identify this person. His first name has also been changed.