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Cook’s fallacy “97% consensus” study is a marketing ploy some journalists will fall for

What does a study of 20 years of abstracts tell us about the global climate? Nothing. But it says quite a lot about the way government funding influences the scientific process.

John Cook, a blogger who runs the site with the ambush title “SkepticalScience” (which unskeptically defends the mainstream position), has tried to revive the put-down and smear strategy against the thousands of scientists who disagree. The new paper confounds climate research with financial forces, is based on the wrong assumptions, uses fallacious reasoning, wasn’t independent, and confuses a consensus of climate scientists for a scientific consensus, not that a consensus proves anything anyway, if it existed.

Given the monopolistic funding of climate science in the last 20 years, the results he finds are entirely predictable.

The twelve clues that good science journalists ought to notice:

1. Thousands of papers support man-made climate change, but not one found the evidence that matters

Cook may have found 3,896 papers endorsing the theory that man-made emissions control the climate, but he cannot name one paper with observations that shows that the assumptions of the IPCC climate models about water vapor and cloud feedbacks are correct. These assumptions produce half to two-thirds of the future projected warming in models. If the assumptions are wrong (and dozens of papers suggest they are) then the predicted warming is greatly exaggerated. Many of the papers in his list are from these flawed models.

In other words, he’s found 3,896 inconclusive, subsequently-overturned, or correct but irrelevant papers. What is most important about his study is that after thousands of scientists have pored over the best data they could find for twenty years, they still haven’t got any conclusive support.

2. Cook’s study shows 66% of papers didn’t endorse man-made global warming

Cook calls this “an overwhelming consensus”.

They examined “11 944 climate abstracts from 1991–2011 matching the topics ‘global climate change’ or ‘global warming’. We find that 66.4% of abstracts expressed no position on AGW, 32.6% endorsed AGW, 0.7% rejected AGW and 0.3% were uncertain about the cause of global warming.

Perhaps the large number that are uncertain merely reflects the situation: climate science is complicated and most scientists are not sure what drives it. The relative lack of skeptical papers here is a function of points 4, 5, and 7 below. Though its irrelevant in any case. It only takes one paper to show a theory is wrong. Who’s counting?

3. Cook’s method is a logical fallacy: Argument from Authority. This is not science, it’s PR.

The thing that makes science different to religion is that only empirical evidence matters, not opinions. There are no Gods of Science. Data, not men, is the authority that gets the last say (there is no Pope-of-The-Papers). Cook turns that on its head. It’s anti-science. When scientists explain why they’re sure gravity keeps the Earth in its orbit, they don’t argue that “97% of geophysicists voted for it”.

Cook knows this (I do keep reminding him), but he pretends to get around it. Spot the delusion: “Scientists must back up their opinions with evidence-based analysis that survives the scrutiny of experts in the field. This means the peer-reviewed literature is a robust indicator of the state of the scientific consensus.” Cook assumes that scientists opinions are based instantly and accurately, and only on the evidence, as if humans were Intel chips. He assumes that “peer review” is uncorruptible (unlike every other human institution), that two unpaid anonymous reviewers is “scrutiny”, that climate-activist-scientists don’t work to keep skeptics out of the peer review literature, and that ClimateGate never spilled out what really happened in climate science.

Don’t people who do psychological research need to understand the basics of human nature? Scientists can cling to the wrong notion for years — just look at those who thought humans would never fly (even two years after the Wright brothers’ first flight) or that x-rays in shoe stores were safe, or that ulcers weren’t infectious, or that proteins could not be contagious (then came BSE).

4. The number of papers is a proxy for funding

As government funding grew, scientists redirected their work to study areas that attracted grants. It’s no conspiracy, just Adam Smith at work. There was no funding for skeptical scientists to question the IPCC or the theory that man-made climate science exaggerates the warming. More than $79 billion was poured into climate science research and technology from 1989 to 2009. No wonder scientists issued repetitive, irrelevant, and weak results. How hard could it be? Taxpayers even paid for research on climate resistant oysters. Let no barnacle be unturned.

Sheer quantity of abstracts endorsing man-made climate change has increased, but so has the funding.

Over the same era, $79 billion was poured into climate science and climate technology related research.

The problem with monopsonistic funding models is that there is little competition. Few researchers are paid to research angles that are likely to disagree with the theory. Volunteers who want to do their own research don’t have free access to journals, may have trouble getting the data (sometimes it takes years or FOIs to get it, and sometimes it never comes). Volunteers don’t necessarily have the equipment to do the analysis, and don’t have PhD or Honours students to help. They also don’t get paid trips to conferences and suffer the impediment of having to devote time to earn an income outside of their research. When they do find something there are no PR teams to promote their papers or send out the press releases.

In the financial world we have audits, in courts we have a defense, in Parliament we have an opposition, but in science we have… whatever the government feels like funding.

In the end, there is no government funding, be it through a grant or institute that actively encourages people to search for reasons the IPCC favoured theory might be wrong.

5. Most of these consensus papers assume the theory is correct but never checked. They are irrelevant.

The papers listed as endorsing man-made global warming includes “implicit endorsement”, which makes this study more an analysis of funding rather than evidence. Cook gives the following as an example of a paper with implicit endorsement: “‘. . . carbon sequestration in soil is important for mitigating global climate change’. Any researcher studying carbon sequestion has almost certainly not analyzed outgoing radiation from the upper troposphere or considered the assumptions about relative humidity in climate simulations. Similarly, researchers looking at the effects of climate change on lemurs, butterflies, or polar bears probably know little about ocean heat content calculations. These researchers are “me too” researchers.

If a conservative government had spent billions analyzing the costs of the failed climate models and the impact of disastrous green schemes, skeptics would be able to quote just as many me-too papers as Cook quotes here. (But we wouldn’t, because analyzing the climate by doing keyword studies — it ain’t science).

6. Money paid to believers is 3500 times larger than that paid to skeptics (from all sources).

Cook seems to believe there are organized efforts running to confuse the public. Is that a projection of Nefarious Intent (NI) coupled with conspiratorial suggestions of mysterious campaigns?

Contributing to this ‘consensus gap’ are campaigns designed to confuse the public about the level of agreement among climate scientists.

Given that he is confused about what science is, he probably would think people are trying to confuse him when they give it to him straight.

His own personal bias means he is the wrong person to do this study (if it were worth doing in the first place, which it isn’t).

It has all the hallmarks of activist propaganda, not research. Cook tries to paint skeptics as doing it for the money, but blindly ignores the real money on the table. Governments have not only paid more than $79 billion in research, they also spend $70 billion every year subsidizing renewables (an industry which depends on researchers finding a link between carbon dioxide and catastrophic climate change). Carbon markets turn over something in the order of $170bn a year, and renewables investment amounts to a quarter of a trillion dollars. These vested interests depend entirely on a catastrophic connection — what’s the point of cutting “carbon” if carbon doesn’t cause a crisis? Against these billions, Cook thinks it’s worth mentioning a 20 year old payment of $510,000 from Western Fuels? And exactly what was Western Fuels big crime? Their primary goal was allegedly the sin of trying to ‘reposition global warming as theory (not fact)’ which as it happens, is quite true, except that technically, “global warming” is not even a theory, it’s a hypothesis, something with much less scientific weight.

Does Climate Money matter? Is a monopoly good for a market?

Do you think if you had $79 billion you could get 3896 papers published

7. Keywords searches may miss the most important skeptical papers.

Keyword searches are more likely to turn up “consensus” papers. Many skeptical papers don’t use the terms “global warming” or “global climate change”: eg Svensmark (1998), Douglass (2007), Christy (2010), Loehle (2009), and Spencer (2011). Were they included? Perhaps they were, but they don’t appear to match the search terms in the methods. These are just a few seminal skeptical papers that might have been missed.

UPDATE: Lucia and JunkPschology in comments confirm that these six papers listed would not have made Cooks list. So in only half an hour of random analysis I can easily turn up major papers by skeptics that fall outside Cooks primitive keyword hunt. How many others miss too?

8. Some of these abstracts are 20 years old — does two decades of new evidence change anything?

Twenty years ago the IPCC was predicting we’d get warming of 0.3 degrees C per decade. The warming trend came in significantly below their lowest possible estimate, no matter which major dataset you consult. Back then scientists didn’t know there was an 800 year lag in the ice cores (where temperatures rise centuries before carbon dioxide does). In 1992 scientists didn’t realize that warming would soon flatten out for 15 years. They didn’t know that 28 million radiosondes would show their models were based on flawed assumptions about water vapor. They didn’t know that 3000 ARGO bouys would finally measure the oceans adequately for the first time (starting in 2003) — and find the oceans were not storing the missing energy their models predicted they would be, or heating nearly as quickly as the models predicted. In other words, even if there was a consensus in 1992, it’s irrelevant.

9. Naiomi Oreskes found 928 papers with abstracts that didn’t explicitly reject man-made global warming. So? Skeptics found 1,100 papers that support skeptical views.

Skeptics don’t issue press releases decreeing that this means anything scientific. It does mean that the media and IPCC are blindly ignoring masses of evidence, and that the term “denier” is well… marketing, not science. The people who deny these 1,100 papers exist are the ones calling other scientists names. When will journalists notice?

Given how much money has been paid to find evidence, the question real investigators ought to ask is “Is that all they found?”

10. You want authority? Skeptics can name 31,500 scientists who agree, including 9,000 PhDs, 45 NASA experts (including two astronauts who walked on the moon) and two Nobel Prize winners in physics.

Skeptics don’t issue press releases saying we outnumber and outrank the believers. Perhaps we should, but skeptics prefer to argue the evidence. Cook ignores the authorities that don’t suit him. Skeptics get Nobel Physics prizes, but believers only seem to get prizes for Peace. Phil Jones is one of the most expert of expert climate scientists, but he couldn’t create a linear trendline in Excel. Some skeptics, on the other hand, got man to the moon.

No wonder the public don’t think there is a consensus. There is no consensus among scientists.

Cook makes out that the public have been fooled by a deliberate campaign, but unless devious skeptics can cover continents in floods and snow, it could be that the public can see the failure of the models with their own eyes.

11. What about Science Associations? But they are not masses of scientists — just committees of six

Most science associations never ask members to vote, (or when they do, they have bizarre rules like the Royal Society, which recently asked members to vote Yes or Yes to inviting Prince Andrew to be a fellow). When science associations do ask all their members, mostly the votes are resounding “No’s”. With billions of dollars in grants in the offing, is it any wonder than relentless activism by government departments, renewables agencies, and other academics desperate to keep the gravy train rolling managed to win over or stack the committees?

12. Cook pretty much says this is not about a scientific argument — it’s a tactic to change public opinion through repetition of the fallacy

The first sentence in both the introduction and the conclusion tell us that the point of this paper is about public perception and government policy. It is not about the science. It is to help change public opinion. There was no attempt to find out whether there was a scientific consensus — as in a consensus among all scientists. Cook pragmatically explains that if people think there is a consensus they are more likely to support a policy to mitigate global warming. We know from Cook’s previous statements that he personally favors policies to change the weather. Is the Australian taxpayer funding research to learn something new, or to change public opinion and voter intentions? (How was this paper funded? It’s not listed in the Acknowledgements?)

Cook continues namecalling and unscientific abuse of the English language

Even John Cook admits the term “climate deniers” can’t be justified, yet he keeps on using it. It’s a misuse of English that helps trick bystanders into thinking Cook has a solid case. If the evidence they have is so overwhelming, why won’t Cook and others enter a polite debate? Just show us the missing evidence. Show us relevant model predictions from 20 years ago that turned out correct. The ol’ name-call and denigrate trick isn’t working anymore.

Cook also claims each abstract was categorized by “two independent, anonymized raters”. Yet the raters came from his partisan blog, discussed their ratings with each other, and acknowledged they were not independent among themselves. So what does “independent” mean? Can we use English instead?

Science has no gods

Welcome to the last dregs of the Great Scare Campaign, where the end game strategy is merely to repeat what worked for them before, which is the abjectly false and profoundly unscientific decree that we must believe the Gods Of Science.

The sad thing is that some environment and “science” reporters are so poorly trained they fall for what is essentially marketing that poses as science.

If only The Convinced had evidence for their favorite pet theory? Then activists like Cook would be able to debate in public, speak politely, and explain their case instead of resorting to cheap smears, dodgy research, and misleading statements.



Cook,  Nuccitelli, Green, Richardson, Winkler, Painting, Way, Jacobs and Skuce (2013) Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature, Environ. Res. Lett. 8 024024 [Abstract]

Douglass, D.H., J.R. Christy, B.D. Pearson, and S.F. Singer. 2007. A comparison of tropical temperature trends with model predictions. International Journal of Climatology, Volume 28, Issue 13, pp. 1693-1701, December 2007. [Abstract] [Discussion WCR CO2science] [PDF]

Christy J.R., Herman, B., Pielke, Sr., R, 3, Klotzbach, P., McNide, R.T., Hnilo J.J., Spencer R.W., Chase, T. and Douglass, D: (2010) What Do Observational Datasets Say about Modeled Tropospheric Temperature Trends since 1979? Remote Sensing 2010, 2, 2148-2169; doi:10.3390/rs2092148 [PDF]

Svensmark, H. (1998): Influence of cosmic rays on earth’s climate. Physical Review Letters 81: 5027-5030. [Discussion CO2Science] [PDF]

Loehle (2009) A mathematical analysis of the divergence problem in dendroclimatology Climatic Change (2009) 94:233–245 DOI 10.1007/s10584-008-9488-8

Lindzen, R. & Yong-Sang Choi, Y, (2011) On the Observational Determination of Climate Sensitivity and Its Implications, Asia-Pacific J. Atmos. Sci., 47(4), 377-390, 2011 [PDF]

Spencer, R. W.; Braswell, W.D. (2011) On the Misdiagnosis of Climate Feedbacks from Variations in Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance, Remote Sens. 2011, 3, 1603-1613. [PDF]

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