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The Conversion Meme

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorAugust 6, 2012 6:18 PM


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In a 2006 NYT op-ed, environment writer Gregg Easterbrook pronounced:

based on the data I'm now switching sides regarding global warming, from skeptic to convert.

In 2011, in an essay titled, "Confessions of a Climate Change Convert," conservative blogger D. R. Tucker said:

I was defeated by facts.

While others have made similar conversions over the last decade, nobody's has been as closely scrutinized and widely discussed (in the media and blogosphere) as that of Berkley physicist Richard Muller. But the circumstances and hoopla surrounding his "conversion" has puzzled many in the climate science community, including NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt:

As most readers are probably aware, there was an op-ed in the Saturday New York Times from Richard Muller announcing the Berkeley Earth team's latest results. It was odd enough that a scientific paper was announced via an op-ed, rather than a press release, odder still that the paper was only being submitted and had not actually been accepted, and most odd of all was the framing "“ a "˜converted skeptic' being convinced by his studies that the planet has indeed warmed and that human activity is the cause "“ which as Mike and Ken Caldiera pointed out has been known for almost 2 decades.

Gavin also correctly noted that "the "˜converted skeptic'/prodigal scientist meme is a very powerful framing for the media." This has been borne out by the lavish coverage Muller received everywhere from NPR and Rachel Maddow to the Los Angeles Times and the Guardian. When it comes to climate change, the conversion meme--especially when it's deftly exploited by someone with a flair for self-publicity--is like catnip for the media.

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