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Cook scores 97% for incompetence on a meaningless consensus

John Cook’s 97% consensus paper was never going to tell us anything about climate science, so it does seem somewhat pointless to analyze the entrails. It was always a marketing ploy. If it had been done well it might have been useful as a proxy for government funding in science. But it wasn’t, so all we’re left with is some insight about the state of academic competence.

Finding a consensus should have been easy. After all,  billions of dollars of funding has gone to find some evidence (any evidence) that CO2 causes a crisis, and entire research departments have been set up to produce papers to discuss that. And if they didn’t find evidence (they didn’t), they could still write papers discussing the bias of instruments, the error bars, the adjustments, and so on and so forth. What are the chances that hordes of scientists would not find anything to publish? We also know that while believers were being employed left, far-left, and center, quite a few skeptics were sacked. Sometimes skeptical papers got delayed by up to two years, while there was usually a rapid-print option for believers. Once, a whole journal was even shut down for publishing skeptical papers (the sin!).

In that environment, how hard would it be to find “a consensus” among government funded officially approved climate scientists? A gift project, you would think, for any half-capable data-cruncher who can read and spell. Which is why it’s all the more amazing that the Cook 97% consensus paper managed to get so much so wrong:

  1. The study can’t be replicated. (Legates et al)
  2. The data is hidden. Either Cook et al didn’t keep it (and are incompetent) or they did but it does not reflect well on them and they won’t release it (they are incompetent and deceptive too?).
  3. The definitions changed between the claims in the abstract and those in the paper. (Legates et a;)
  4. The raters were not independent. 7% of the ratings were wrong, and biased.
  5. The ratings data shows inexplicable patterns.
  6. Cook et al fail to report that their data fail their own validation test. 
  7. Most of the papers were irrelevant. Those authors were writing about “impacts” or “mitigation” of climate change and not about the cause of climate change. Obviously skeptical scientists will not write about “mitigation” or “impacts” of climate change, so including these papers (and there are thousands) served the purpose of increasing the total number of papers claimed to be surveyed and also increases the percentage of “consensus”. That is an utterly predictable outcome. Good PR, lousy design.
  8. It’s not a representative sample, and Cook did not test to see if it was.
  9. The paper is used to make profoundly unscientific statements in the media. Cook et al endorse the fallacies.

We shouldn’t blame John Cook entirely though. Surely the standards here are a reflection of those at the University of Queensland, and the University of WA (where he is doing his PhD). Isn’t his supervisor Prof Lewandowsky?


A claim has been that 97% of the scientific literature endorses anthropogenic climate change (Cook et al., 2013. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 024024). This claim, frequently repeated in debates about climate policy, does not stand. A trend in composition is mistaken for a trend in endorsement. Reported results are inconsistent and biased. The sample is not representative and contains many irrelevant papers. Overall, data quality is low. Cook׳s validation test shows that the data are invalid. Data disclosure is incomplete so that key results cannot be reproduced or tested.

Conclusion and policy implications

The conclusions of Cook et al. are thus unfounded. There is no doubt in my mind that the literature on climate change overwhelmingly supports the hypothesis that climate change is caused by humans. I have very little reason to doubt that the consensus is indeed correct. Cook et al., however, failed to demonstrate this. Instead, they gave further cause to those who believe that climate researchers are secretive (as data were held back) and incompetent (as the analysis is flawed).

It will take decades or longer to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to zero—the only way to stabilize its atmospheric concentration. During that time, electoral fortunes will turn. Climate policy will not succeed unless it has broad societal support, at levels comparable to other public policies such as universal education or old-age support. Well-publicized but faulty analyses like the one by Cook et al. only help to further polarize the climate debate.


Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D.,Green, S.A., Richardson, M., Winkler ,B., Painting,R.,Way,R., Jacobs, P., Skuce, A.,2013. Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific  literature. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 024024. Legates, D.R.,Soon,W.,Briggs,W.M.,2013. Monckton of Brenchley. Climate  consensus  and misinformation: a rejoinder to agnotology, scientific consensus, and the teaching and learning of climate change. Sci. Educ.(Ref Type:In Press.). [See my discussion – JN] Tol, Richard (2014) Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the literature: A re-analysis, Journal of Energy Policy, Science Direct: S0301421514002821. [ also PDF] ———————- All posts tagged “John Cook”

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