Conflation, confusion and conditioning.

Much time is spent on the web categorising the fallacious arguments alarmist use into classical debating errors with impressive Latin names. That’s all good stuff as far as it goes, but the propagandists use a number of shady techniques which because they rely more on group psychology rather than a structured argument, don’t quite fall neatly into any formal debating sin. I’d like to discuss the most powerful one they most commonly employ – conflation.

Conflation means the mixing up of two or more ideas or terms which might at face value appear to be about the same underlying thing. It’s often used quite deliberately by propagandists, simply because by getting someone to agree that an obviously acceptable idea is actually good, and then subtly grafting on to it another idea which the same person might not agree with, they in effect finesse any argument or inhibit one.

At a low level – what other – it’s often used by climate alarmists, who’re in the habit of switching seamlessly between the terms global warming, climate change and weather, depending on nothing more than which one will have a greater topical impact. You really do have to keep your eye on the pea.

It’s most commonly used in politics, where what I call the presentation idea is injected with a payload idea. An example of this presentation /payload technique would be getting a person to agree it’s an honourable thing to volunteer to defend their homeland and then interpreting that as being willing to invade other countries to achieve political aims they might not approve of.

When someone expresses a single idea, it’s easy to both evaluate and respond to. Where they’ve mashed several ideas together, any response is necessarily more complex. First, you have to recognise conflation is occurring, then point out to them that’s what they’re doing and finally formulate a response which usually takes the longer and more finicky form of I agree with that bit, but not the other bit. By the time you’ve done all that, they’ll have tried to rush the discussion on to something else.

The insertion of the payload idea is often done using a malformed syllogism, which could be easily mistaken for the real thing. If you aren’t familiar with what a syllogism is, it’s a line of reasoning of the following general form – If X is the same as Y, and Y itself is the same as Z, it follows therefore that X must be the same as Z.

An obvious example of its abuse looks like – Apples are the same as Pears, Pears are the same as Oranges, therefore Apples are Oranges. It’s the fudging of the first two equivalences you’ve got to keep an eagle eye out for and that’s commonly done by omitting or inferring the second one. What can make it extremely difficult to spot is that sometimes the last two equivalences are dropped completely, because they’re operating on your subconscious. We’re not talking about formal logic here, but deep and repetitive conditioning to induce a viewpoint.

It’s usage is pervasive by the alarmists in the climate wars and it nearly always uses what I’d qualify as a positive presentation idea. Here are some examples thereof using syllogism abuse by dropping or inferring the second equivalence, but I’ve appended the refutation.

While everyone would naturally agree that stopping a factory belching out environmentally harmful pollution is a good thing, that’s no mandate to regulate the trace gas CO2, which is not a pollutant. While all would agree that alleviating poverty around the world is a good thing, it’s not concurring to a global redistribution of wealth, because there simply isn’t enough wealth in the world to make a significant dent in global poverty. Regulating occurrences of rapacious Capitalism is a decent thing, but it isn’t a consent to de-industrialise the developed world, since that would destroy any wealth generation.

I’m sure you can add your own favourite presentation / payload conflation couplets.

Negative conflation, which is used mainly in attack propaganda, is employing a negative presentation idea to deliver a desirable payload idea. For instance, Stephen Lewandowsky used a negative presentation idea in a subsequently retracted paper, which was that climate skeptics had been scientifically classified as conspiratorial, reactionary and psychologically disturbed individuals. Reconstructing the shattered propaganda syllogism and expressing it explicitly; skeptics are deranged, you’re a skeptic, therefore you’re deranged. The implicit and unexpressed payload idea is of course that the last thing you’d want to be known as is a skeptic.

Attack propaganda, as its name suggests, is nothing more than aggression against opponents but it also serves the useful purpose of scaring any of your own fellow travellers, who may be having doubts, to stay on side.

When used skilfully, explicit conflation very often goes unnoticed by those on whom it is being practised, but even when they do happen to have vague doubts about the payload idea, it does tend to mute objections, if not suppress them entirely. It takes a strong personality not to hesitate expressing reservations with a subtly conflated idea, which everyone else around you appears to think is obviously a good idea.

In passing, it’s worth noting that nearly all alarmist propaganda targeted at children and young adults makes heavy use of positive conflation, since it exploits their naturally larger need for acceptance by their peer groups.

Perhaps the most subtle and yet always unnoticed use of both positive and negative conflation is exploiting people’s political leanings to bounce them into the alarmist camp or at least to exert a subtle pressure to keep them in it against what’s often their vaguely troubled judgement. It’s also used to inhibit any criticism by people of a different political persuasion.

Before continuing this line of argument, I’m obliged to touch on my own politics, since this article is about an infowar technique and I don’t want it to be perceived as a right-winger indulging in a subtle bit of left bashing. I’m neither committed to the left or right, to the extent that my voting choices at national level vary depending on how well or not the current administration is doing or how credible the opposition are looking. I am a pragmatist when it comes to mainstream politics. If you allow yourself to become seriously committed to a particular left or right-wing party, they tend to ignore you since your vote for them is already in the bank, and in effect you’ll have ceded the choice of the next government to the first time or floating voter.

On balance and given the absence of any real political choice because of the modern phenomenon of most mainstream parties fighting for the middle ground, I’ve most often voted against the current government, irrespective of their political stripe, since I believe it keeps them on their toes. Big rolling majorities tend to lead to abuses of power and are rarely good for democracy. That makes me a tactical floating voter and as any polling analyst will tell you, that’s the demographic which so often decides who’s going to win an election.

It’s a personal thing, but I find it easier to come to a sound view on particular issues when I think about them outside the constraint of having to fit the conclusion into a uniform political philosophy. In the round and adding up my views on various things, I suppose I would be positioned slightly left of centre.

In a previous article, I expressed the opinion that large swathes of the environmental movement had long ago been subverted for their own ends by various parties whose common politics were heavily left of socialism. Add into that mix a mainstream media which though not as deeply left-wing, still leans predominantly in that direction, and you’ve got a very handy symbiotic relationship, which is exploited by alarmist propagandists to good effect. A read through the Climategate emails shows the scientists involved funneling press releases to advocate journalists who could be relied upon to impart the desired spin.

It was a natural step to extend the traditional but simplistic stereotypes used by the left to flatter themselves and depict their right-wing opponents in a bad light. For instance, let’s do some conflation on the following cliché. Only left wingers really care about the poor and downtrodden, because it’s right wingers who keep them poor and have a financial motive to always exploit them ruthlessly.

A positive conflation of this is simply that caring not only about needy people but by extension the environment they live in is of course what every true left winger will naturally do. A negative conflation is that if you question the means by which caring about the environment is to be achieved, then your left-wing credentials are somehow suspect. In a similar way, right-wingers often hesitate to criticise environmental policy, since they feel that might appear to confirm their opponent’s cliché of them being ruthless exploiters of the Earth.

The impression being planted in minds is that left wingers are not supposed to be critical of things environmental, which is why in point of fact so very few of them raise any objections. This inhibition can be further reinforced by another conflation making use of inter-party tribalism; right-wingers always want to exploit the environment ruthlessly, and therefore if a left-winger is critical of anything about environmentalism, they’re in effect helping out their natural political enemy.

If you’re partial to the slightly academic exercise of examining alternative history scenarios, it’s interesting to speculate on which childish stereotypes the right might conflate if they’d instead subverted the environmental movement and had an equally incestuous relationship with the mainstream media. Let’s do some conflation on one of their favourite clichés; right wingers believe in free markets and left wingers are against them.

A positive conflation would probably be something along the lines of; caring for the environment by creating things like a green enterprise sector and carbon trading markets, would simply be doing the wealth generation that every true right-winger believes in. The negative conflation, and you’re probably ahead of me on this one, would be that if you questioned the financial viability of a green sector or the effectiveness of carbon trading, then your right-wing credentials would be somehow suspect. After all, only a left-winger would be against creating sunrise industry sectors and new financial markets.

I’ve often seen people of a leftward persuasion preface a valid objection to an aspect of environmental policy, with an almost unconscious apology for what they were about to say. By the same token, I’ve just as often heard people compelled to say that even though they were right-wing, they still cared about the environment.

That’s a sad state of affairs but it’s an unconscious acknowledgement of how deep the conflated political conditioning goes, and is one of the barriers that people of either persuasion struggle with when trying to discuss environmentalism as an issue which should stand or fall on its own merits. Unpicking that almost tribal mix of environmentalism and politics is impossible at this stage but as climate alarmism sticks stubbornly at the bottom of voter’s concerns, it’ll become irrelevant as it continues to slide off the political agenda and therefore lose political influence.

Conflation is a deceitful but powerful technique in any discussion and this article has barely scratched the surface of how it can be utilised. Given the limitations of a blog, completeness has to be sacrificed to achieve some clarity and the deeper dive into the subject is left to the reader.

When applied in infowar, conflation is used to subtly mix up not only ideas, but people’s politics and their self-image. What makes it an insidious evil is that it makes heavy use of unexamined clichés and stereotypes, which are themselves rarely true, and the payload idea is so often an unspoken psychological one aimed at conditioning people.


Related articles by Pointman:

How environmentalism turned to the dark side.

Is being Green left-wing or right-wing?

The decline of the environmental lobby’s political influence.

A decisive minority of idiots, fashionistas and the innocent.

Click for a list of other articles.


22 Responses to “Conflation, confusion and conditioning.”
  1. There’s another factor at work in the environmental movement as well – it has become bureaucratized. And according to Pournelle’s Iron Law: “in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself…The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.” The alarmists in particular are working to further the existence of bureaucratic alarmism, apparently independent of belief.


  2. Rick Bradford says:

    Bureaucracies in the West have completely outgrown the supply of competent, or even marginally conscious, people to administer them.

    Even at the highest political levels, decision making rarely occurs at a deeper level than: “We must do something; this is something, therefore we must do it.”


  3. M Simon says:

    While everyone would naturally agree that stopping a factory belching out environmentally harmful pollution is a good thing, that’s no mandate to regulate the trace gas CO2, which is not a pollutant.

    The first mate – who does not follow the debates closely and who is not deep into science – is convinced CO2 is a pollutant by association. I tried to explain to her that it was plant food and without it life as we know it would be impossible. She was mildly sceptical of my assertions.

    The CAGWs have done a VERY good job in convincing her. Ah. Well. They do have the broadcast media well in hand and that is all they need.


    • Blackswan says:

      The Australian Socialist/Marxists changed our language over the past six years, making ‘carbon-pollution’ all one word – so your ‘first mate’ isn’t alone – especially when the 30 second TV grab was always accompanied by the image of a power station cooling tower emitting gouts of steam.

      Linking verbal pronouncements with ominous visual imagery clinched the deal and it’s especially effective with young people who aren’t into science or following debates either. Job done.


    • Mike Jackson says:

      You could try suggesting she stop breathing!
      Not seriously, but I find it alarming how many people are not aware of what they exhale.
      It is equally alarming to come across those who don’t know the difference between Carbon Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide.


    • Pointman says:

      Try the first mate out on this piece on CO2. Tell her it’s a bit sciency but WTF …



  4. M Simon says:


    Left/right is really a meaningless concept. The real question is “more government control or less”. Statist or anti-statist. I vote on anti-statist grounds. Which usually means against who ever is in office.


    • Traitor to my class? What class? says:

      Hardly. It’s the most effective and simplest way of looking at the divide and it works. It allows depiction of a (murky) middle ground, anomalies (like China) and extremes (like China). The luvvies would like to be called anything but ‘left’. They don’t like the sinister aspect of ‘left’.


  5. hoppers says:

    Yes, here in Perth we’ve just celebrated the 1st year anniversary of Lewandowsky’s departure from our fair city. – Must take that bunting down.


  6. Blackswan says:


    Always informative and interesting to attend your psych classes. These techniques have been standard fare in the sales and marketing industries for years and the panic in the Copenhagen fiasco of 2009 (post Climategate), threw them into sharp relief.

    And what is politics if not ‘selling’ people on ideas and promises which need never be honoured?

    It was such an ingenious concept wasn’t it? Most western nations have some form of consumption tax, income tax, corporate and capital gains taxes – but how to tax the low-income, low-spending voting peasantry and persuade them that they’d be serving the greater good?

    Saving Mother Gaia ticked all the boxes. The super bonus being tight societal controls on every facet of our lives, while those stricken by hunger and fuel poverty are just collateral damage and ‘superfluous to needs’ anyway. So many ‘unintended consequences’, so many ‘unintended benefits’.

    The Alarmist Carpetbaggers have seen their best years – their recent panicked efforts simply demonstrate they know the party is winding down.


  7. Larry says:

    Pointman, you are absolutely spot on. I have always been a single minded individual in the sense I never lose track of whatever issue I am discussing which has made me keenly aware of conflation. Thanks for explaining it.


  8. RonSin says:

    Thanks again for a great Post Pointman. Always glad to learn new stuff – new to me anyway.
    Wish I’d been able to read this post 40 or 50 years ago. They sure don’t teach this kind of info in Engineering school – at least they didn’t in my day. And it would have been as equally important as the other things mechanical engineers learned over the intervening years. Maybe moreso.
    Ah well – better late than never.
    Cheers and thanks again.


  9. I must admit I usually almost skim through your posts, Pointman, as I can’t wait to get from one phrase to the next. This week I actually had to slow myself down to make sure I took it all in on first reading. The points you make are of course very true, for all politicians of any colour, and marketeers and the rest of them. It’s the modern world, distilled.

    Now that the dust appears to have settled, I wrote a post recently on the whole, delicious Lewandowsky affair here:

    I firmly believe it will go down as perhaps the funniest story in the entire Climate Wars.


  10. durango12 says:

    I would not underestimate the potential of the global warming movement to classify skeptics as deranged. We saw in the old Soviet Union that once the gulag became passe, insane asylums became the repository du jour for those who dissented. And indeed to the prevailing wisdom, that makes a kind of sense; dissidents must be crazy to cast themselves against the dogma. Thus in the global warming universe, it is OK to convene conferences for the express purpose of discussing what to do about those deranged skeptics, complete with “eco-psychologists.” “Spiked” covered it well It is OK to blow up children who don’t think it makes sense to save a gram of carbon (“Hey, we were only kidding.”). It is OK for the US central government to demonize those who oppose its climate-mediated energy grab.

    My point is that in a world (actually just the decaying West) where traditions of tolerance are whisked away in less than a generation, I would not assume that there will ultimately be restraint of any kind.


    • bushkid says:

      Sadly durango, I fear you are right. While real science and that rarest of commodities – common sense – should, in a fair and just world, win the day, I am not altogether confident it will happen in my lifetime. These people are trying to steal – no, they are stealing my world, and like Odysseus, I want to reclaim it.


  11. ossqss says:

    Interesting read PM.


    I have found that in most instances of real world live interaction (not the text world of blogging), most folks who are activists in the environmental movement are not really astute of their movement beyond a few talking points.

    That said, when exposed to environmental conflation I follow the path above. I will be brief as I have a large to-do list today.


    Ask the individual to explain their goal. Do they even have one?

    For instance, what is the goal of lowering C02 emissions?

    How do we make that work, how long does it take?

    What is the desired outcome?


    What does lowering C02 mean to you?

    Does it improve your standard of living?

    Does it save lives?

    What is the cost of such a goal in quality of life and real dollars to you?

    Does lowering C02 help the poor countries get out of poverty or hunger?

    What sacrifices do you have to make to reach your goal of lowering C02?

    What direct impacts do your sacrifices and money have on C02 levels?

    How confident are you in our understanding of forcings and feedbacks related to C02?


    Link their answers into a chain to paint the picture of what the activist actually unknowingly desires so they can see if for the first time.

    A few things typically pop out to them:

    They are not really sure what the actual goal or outcome is supposed to be in the end.

    They did not really think about what their position really means to them and or what actual cost it is to them personally and monetarily.

    They did not really think about what controlling C02 does to their freedom.

    They realize how fragile the science is that they take as golden.


    Once a more detailed discussion than the above brief example takes place, the activist type will typically reassess their position since much of the fundamental assumed “givens” are now questions. Ultimately they realize this is about global energy policy and control, and not about the environment in the end. That is a whole other discussion.

    Remind them that they exhale about 3,456L of C02 per day, can they reduce that too?

    Appologies for any typo’s as this was done in haste. e


  12. Alane says:

    Just found this blog while looking for something on conflation. So interesting that you have used climate change as your example. It seems like someone clever enough to understand conflation would also be clever enough to understand science and statistics. If you went to 100 doctors and only 3 told you didn’t have cancer, would you forgo the treatments? The question is how, in face of so much evidence to the contrary, has such a significant part of our citizenry been able to dismiss the dangers of climate change? My guess is because the fossil fuel industry has been effective at using conflation as well.


    • Pointman says:

      The climate wars are over. You lost, we won – get used to the idea.


      Liked by 1 person

      • hoppers says:

        Still a few stragglers left out there. – I’ve kinda missed all the lunacy lately, so fun to hear from a believer again. And still using fossil fuel industry are funding you all argument. Epic


    • catweazle666 says:

      “The question is how, in face of so much evidence to the contrary, has such a significant part of our citizenry been able to dismiss the dangers of climate change?”

      Perhaps because a significant part of our citizenry aren’t as gullible as you, and can spot a hoax when it is as blatant as AGW has turned out to be?


    • Alane – until around a half-dozen years ago I accepted the standard consensus (in all the news, general media and even the scientific press) that Global Warming was as a result of the CO2 we emit. After all, I was trained as a scientist and I don’t expect scientists to lie or to fudge their data, and over my lifetime I’ve experienced enough change in weather patterns to count as a climate shift. I wasn’t fanatic about the problem, but I did have a look at ways it could be mitigated. Since I’m working on better ways of generating power as a way of making energy cheaper, the lack of CO2 production seemed useful.

      A friend pointed at the problems in the AGW idea, the main one being that as greenhouse gases go, the water-vapour in the air is not under our control and is variable, but since the absorption/emission spectrum of water-vapour overlaps most of the spectrum of CO2, the CO2 has an effect around 2 orders of magnitude lower than the water-vapour (that’s around 1%). From the IPCC figures, around 97% of the CO2 emitted is not under our control but naturally emitted, so even if we stopped all human CO2 emissions we’d only have an effect of around 0.003% on the absolute temperature which is around 0.08°C (and of course we’d also die). That’s the science bit.

      The reason why the IPCC says it’s a human-caused problem is that their computer models predict an extreme sensitivity to CO2 in the air. If you look back at the previous IPCC predictions and the spread of the 14 different models they use, you’ll see that the actual measured temperature falls below the predicted range. The pause in rising temperatures (as measured by satellite) was unexpected, given that the CO2 level kept on rising at a pretty constant rate. The ground-based measurements showed some rises as more weather-stations moved to airports and urbanisation crept up on weather-stations on the outskirts of cities. I’ve worked in computers a long time, so I’m suspicious of models that give wrong predictions and I want to look at the code. Mostly, you can’t do that – they are proprietary. You just have to accept that they’ve used the right algorithms and have coded it without bugs, and since all the models give the wrong answers by experiment then I sure don’t trust them. They’ve fitted curves between a range, and are trying to extrapolate outside that range, and if they have got the wrong model of the interactions then it will give a wrong answer – as they all do. They diverge from each other and from the measured results, and this can be seen in the IPCC reports.

      Then look at the history. There are “lost cities” around in places so arid they won’t support that many people. 5000 years ago the Sahara was a lush savannah with monsoon rains. The evidence around us is that the climate has always been changing all on its own without humans burning fossil fuels and putting out more CO2. I’ve seen claims that the CO2 from fossil fuel has a different isotopic ratio, thus we can tell how much of the CO2 is “ours”, but then again limestone burned in the subduction zones between tectonic plates would also produce such an isotopic ratio since that is “fossil” CO2. If the computer models can explain the Roman Warm Period, the Mediaeval Warm Period, and the Little Ice Age then I’d be more willing to trust them, but as it is those anomalies cannot be modelled. Also note that the warmer times were times of plenty when humans did well, and that the colder time were times of hardship. A bit of extra warmth is actually a good thing, even if there are some downsides.

      At the end, we come down to the conclusion that the climate is changing, and it’s mainly through natural causes, and there’s not a lot of difference between what is happening and what would have happened if we’d curtailed all fossil-fuel use. If we change the land use, then that will definitely change the climate downwind through a difference in albedo and water-vapour produced at that spot, so chopping down forests wholesale is not a good thing if we want stability in the climate. On the other hand, neither is irrigation of new areas. Again, though, looking at history, the average temperature is actually surprisingly stable, so the biosphere must be producing negative feedback in response to changes. The over-concentration on CO2 above everything else seems to be blinding people to these other very-obvious causes of a local climate change.

      Back in the 70s, newspaper reports were all about the coming Ice Age, and how we were all doomed. If you look at the data they used to predict that, they used the previous 30 years since that’s “long enough” to say there’s a change in climate. Back in the 2000’s they looked back 30 years and said the temperature was rising, and that it was correlated with the CO2 level so that must be the cause. Going back to the IPCC temperature record, if you look carefully at it (and squint to fuzz it a bit or use a rolling 10-year average) you’ll see a 60-year temperature cycle imposed on a slow rise. Choose the right 30-year period and you can show that it’s rising or falling, or even constant, depending on what story you want to sell.

      Climate change is real. We do have some small effect on it, but the main one is in land-use change rather than CO2 production. Rather than sort out who to blame when it goes pear-shaped, we need instead to prepare for what’s coming. Maybe the first thing in that is to get the computer models right. You know the same models are used to predict the weather? Do you trust them more than 3 days ahead?


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