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Climate change consensus: the percentage game

June 2, 2014

A notorious lobby group just launched another scurrilous attack on the 97% consensus on climate change. Why do they waste their time, when proving the lack of consensus should be so easy to do?

Once more, environmental scientist and risk assessor Dana Nuccitelli has been obliged to defend the paper he co-authored with John Cook, assisted by a shed-load of Skeptical Science readers: “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”. The paper proved – once more – that the vast majority of scientific papers (and the scientists who wrote them) endorse the principle theory of anthropogenic climate change; that the climate is changing so rapidly there has to be a very un-natural cause, and humans are it.

On the off-chance that you’re unfamiliar with this issue, Cook and Nuccitelli’s peer-reviewed paper, published by respected journal Environmental Research Letters, confirmed what a number of previous studies had already found: Oreskes 2004, Doran & Zimmerman 2009, Anderegg, 2010 all discovered that around 97% of climate scientists and/or the papers they published support the basic tenets of global warming caused by human agency. In the common parlance, this 97% are said to form a consensus, which on the face of it hardly seems to merit contention. Needless to say, this consensus is in fact one of the most contentious issues in the entire climate change debate.

Displaying a rare regard for accuracy, climate change ‘skeptics’ point out that science is not done by consensus, and that’s nearly right. Science isn’t correct because the majority voted for it. While much science is never proved in the mathematical sense, it becomes an accepted part of the canon when nobody disputes it any longer, so compelling is the evidence that supports the theory: evolution is a perfect example, the ‘big bang’ theory another. And so too is climate change – there are few credible scientists who dispute the principle theories, choosing instead to indulge in ‘lukewarm’ opposition – it won’t get as hot as we think, or it won’t be as bad – that kind of stuff.

Who Fears The Consensus? Climate Change Deniers

 “Those who do not understand the scientific consensus about human-caused climate change are, in turn, less likely to believe that climate change is happening, human-caused, will have serious consequences, and is solvable (i.e., can be mitigated through concerted action). In addition, not understanding this scientific consensus undermines Americans’ support for a broad societal response to the threat”

Maibach, Myers & Leiserowitz, 2014

Climate change isn’t affected by the consensus one way or another; no amount of agreement or disagreement will change the rate at which the ice melts or the sea level changes. In which case, we arrive at an obvious question. If the science isn’t done by consensus, but is accepted by the vast majority because it is robust, what’s all the fuss about?

The fuss is about public perception. There are numerous examples of how lobby groups have sought to instil doubt about science when it suits their paymasters. A good example is found in an extract from a memo written by Republican strategist Frank Luntz for then president George W. Bush. The topic was global warming. Despite admitting that “”The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science…” Luntz advised the Bush administration to sow doubt:

” Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate…” [Original Emphasis].

(By the way, you may have seen complaints that ‘warmists’ changed the name from ‘global warming’ to climate change’ but it turns out this was in fact another strategy advocated by Luntz – in the same memo – because as he puts it “Climate change is less frightening than global warming”).

This strategy – to sow doubt in order to prevent the public from believing that the scientific position is virtually unanimous – is still being employed today. Nuccitelli was obliged to defend the consensus in his Guardian column in response to a new attack, this one published in the Wall Street Journal. Written by Joe Bast, president of fossil-fuel funded lobby group the Heartland Institute, and professional climate skeptic Roy Spencer, it rehearses any number of specious arguments in another attempt to dispute the consensus.

The Argument That Dares Not Speak Its Name

Climate change denying lobby groups and pundits have spent an inordinate amount of time and money trying to mislead the public over the ‘settled science’ – the tenets of global warming that are now undisputed by the 97% of climate scientists doing the work.

The odd thing is that even if they were correct – that none of the previous papers had correctly demonstrated a consensus – this still wouldn’t prove there wasn’t one. Even if we accepted that all the papers were fatally flawed, all that would prove is that the consensus had not been demonstrated.

Here we come to the core problem for the sceptical community. The easiest way to disprove the consensus isn’t by taking issue with previous papers, because that doesn’t achieve anything. As a recent statement signed by 41academics pointed out (in relation to a different academic dispute):

Above all, we urge scholars with criticisms of each other’s work to pursue them through the normal channels of academic debate. If you doubt another researcher’s results, try to replicate the analysis, and then publish your findings. If you don’t like a published article, publish a better one. (My emphasis).

And there it is, the one avenue not available to the skeptics. They can’t ‘publish a better one’ and indeed, they’ve never tried. Why not? Because if they launched a survey of climate scientists – all the scientists who had published anything on climate change in the last decade, for example – they know perfectly well that their survey would replicate the findings of all the previous ones.

The whole issue is propaganda of the worst kind. The most obvious way to prove there is a lack of consensus – a credible survey – is the one method the skeptics cannot employ, and have never attempted (except if you count meretricious shite like The Oregon Petition). It should not be necessary to elaborate this point, nor hammer home the clear message, but here it is anyway: the fastest and most effective way to demonstrate the lack of consensus would be to publish a peer-reviewed survey that proved its absence. I leave you to ponder why the dissemblers and doubters have never done so.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. June 2, 2014 11:32 am

    AFAIK, the only attempt made by the deniers to carry out a survey was Benny Peiser (now of GWPF), trying to rebut Oreskes. Even E&E rejected his work and he admitted he had failed in his aim.

  2. June 2, 2014 2:09 pm

    There are some interesting parallels between the denial that an overwhelming scientific consensus exists on climate change and the attacks on Thomas Piketty’s recent work on rising inequality

    Paul Krugman writes:

    “In short, this latest attempt to debunk the notion that we’ve become a vastly more unequal society has itself been debunked. And you should have expected that. There are so many independent indicators pointing to sharply rising inequality, from the soaring prices of high-end real estate to the booming markets for luxury goods, that any claim that inequality isn’t rising almost has to be based on faulty data analysis.

    Yet inequality denial persists, for pretty much the same reasons that climate change denial persists: there are powerful groups with a strong interest in rejecting the facts, or at least creating a fog of doubt. Indeed, you can be sure that the claim “The Piketty numbers are all wrong” will be endlessly repeated even though that claim quickly collapsed under scrutiny.

    By the way, I’m not accusing Mr. Giles of being a hired gun for the plutocracy, although there are some self-proclaimed experts who fit that description. And nobody’s work should be considered above criticism. But on politically charged issues, critics of the consensus need to be self-aware; they need to ask whether they’re really seeking intellectual honesty, or are effectively acting as concern trolls, professional debunkers of liberal pieties. (Strange to say, there are no trolls on the right debunking conservative pieties. Funny how that works.)”

  3. June 3, 2014 5:51 am

    I think it is important to make clear that the consensus position does include “lukewarmers” as is clearly the case with people like Bentsson, and Curry ( though Curry appears to be an opportunist, whereas Bentsson seems honest if clearly biased by ideology)
    In discussing this issue with others I give my off the cuff view that easily more that 90% think there are very likely to be serious consequences from ACC, maybe 5% think there will likely not be serious consequences, and 1-3% are just nuts.

  4. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 3, 2014 7:12 am

    @hasturhasturhastur: I missed a trick (as in Mike’s nature trick, right?). I should have pointed out that the other thing the sceptics could do – and this is even easier – is simply count the number of peer reviewed articles published in the last decade that don’t support the consensus. Of course, we all know why they haven’t done that either.

  5. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 3, 2014 7:18 am

    @Andy Skuce: Hi Andy – really nice to see you.

    I’ve been meaning to write something about Piketty’s work but haven’t found the time. I was disappointed that more people didn’t make the connection between the implications of his work and the effect of rising inequality WRT climate change. I’ve written many times about the need to find a better economic system, mainly from a perspective that materialism has greed built-in as a maxim, and that climate change is the effluent that materialism produces (along with much other environmental and humanist collateral damage).

    This interview with Chris Hayes is interesting, as he touches on the same points:

    Chris Hayes: Thomas Piketty is misunderstood, and the climate crisis is worse than you think

  6. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 3, 2014 7:27 am

    @tonydunc: welcome Tony and thanks for the comment. I think it is also important to bear in mind that the consensus isn’t about the damage we’re likely to do; it’s limited to the cause/effect relationship – that human agency is changing the climate faster than the ecosystem (us included) can adapt.

    There are many divergent views about how bad things could get, given the range of trajectories for emissions we might follow – from lukewarm to catastrophy. In any case, I don’t believe the socio-economic impacts of climate change are within the scientific remit; scientists can only express views on such matters as lay people, just like me, as they have no more expertise in this than I do.

    WRT Bengtsson by the way, I thought he redeemed himself a little when he debunked the Times story. He did that without hesitation (and perhaps, cynically, with an eye to future prospects of getting published in any journals), but he did the right thing. I agree that his view is becoming tarnished by what appears to be an increasingly right-wing outlook.

  7. June 3, 2014 4:06 pm

    I agree. What causes me to dismiss Curry as an honest skeptic is her penchant to ignore things like Bengtssons clarification about the IPCC and the Mail article. Also her unwillingness to correct even the most ridiculous arguments made on her blog.
    I am not sure what you mean by saying that ACC is happening faster than adaptation. Adaptation is going to happen, what sorts of degradation of ecosystems and human consequences is the question. If there is the possibility if significant damage to enough elements then it is well within scientific realm to describe what those might be. the specifics may well be often inaccurate, but time and research should lead to closer approximations to reality. I guess I am including, anthropology, sociology and economics as “science”.

    with regard to your above comment to Andy, any reference to finding a “better” economic system is clearly a taboo in current society. The fact that economic systems constantly change and evolve is an obvious but suspect idea in our culture. There will certainly have to be important changes in how economics operates in order to continue to be productive and conducive to human well being, but these will have to be organic changes. Ones that are perceived as just common sense. I imagine that technological changes, such as driverless cars, may make the idea of individual car ownership obsolete, and thereby greatly increase economic efficiency because it will just be cheaper and more convenient. but it won’t happen by a “social movement” to make personal ownership of cars undesirable for ecological reasons. Or local energy production through wind and especially solar, as we are already seeing in the conflict between electric utilities and people selling excess capacity from PV’s on their property. But once these sorts of changes DO occur ( if they do) that makes people much more amenable to other efficiencies, without being threatened that it is somehow an attack on their way of life.

  8. taiger permalink
    June 30, 2014 3:04 am

    Well, get ready for the next deniers spin on the valid point of “publish a better one” Of course they’re claiming the peer review process is a conspiracy of scientists to keep only their opinions (accepted by the evil overlord scientists cartel, I suppose) and all dissenting opinions (papers) are rejected and unwelcome. So we need a supportable response to this nonsense with some semblance of simple proof so the rest of us can wield it against the “skeptics” when they bring this up. A link to someone who has worked through this next denier argument would be helpful. I know enough about science from the inside to know this isn’t true in the vast majority that proclivities of the reviewers will trump good science. However, has this been tested quantitatively in any way– or do we just know it from seeing it in operation for year after year? How do we translate that to the common non scientist and help them see what is a valid objection and what is not. Thanks in advance.
    Great blog by the way. I have enjoyed the content greatly.

  9. Brad Keyes permalink
    November 6, 2014 3:25 am


    “The easiest way to disprove the consensus isn’t by taking issue with previous papers, because that doesn’t achieve anything.”

    There’s a difference between invalidating a proof and “disproving” (i.e. proving false) the thing the proof claims to prove.

    I’m not sure anyone was trying to prove there’s no consensus. They just want to expose the unscholarly shoddiness of certain consensus studies. And that’s precisely what “taking issue with” those studies achieves.

    Climate science has invented this strange notion that the appropriate response to bad research is not to examine it and describe all the problems you find, but to carry out your own “better” research.

    That meme is absurd, and serves only to protect bad researchers from scrutiny and embarrassment.

    Unless you explain publicly and clearly what is WRONG with the original paper, readers have no basis for choosing to believe your paper instead. It just becomes he-said-she-said.

    Bad research must be DEBUNKED, DISCREDITED, etc. Merely responding with “better” research can only dilute the misinformation.

  10. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 6, 2014 8:53 am

    Dear mother of God Brad, how could you manage to miss the point(s) quite so egregiously? (Answer: you are a denier).

    “There’s a difference between invalidating a proof and “disproving” (i.e. proving false) the thing the proof claims to prove.”

    Thanks for repeating exactly the point I made in my post: any chump can claim the methodology is faulty because all that takes is sufficient hot air to express the opinion in order to ‘invalidate’ the paper’s findings. Even were the methodology to be wholly unsound – and the SkS work is far from that (not to mention the papers before it that achieved exactly the same result but strangely, all of which are also, according to deniers, equally flawed) – that only takes us back to square one; that the consensus cannot be said to have been demonstrated. It does not in any way demonstrate a lack of consensus, which is the very claim deniers keep making despite being entirely unable to offer a shred of proof. It is this spurious, self-serving deceit that this and other papers seek to disprove by a method more robust than simply making the claim without any kind of substantiation.

    So I ask again: why attack the methodology of paper after paper, attempting to invalidate the result by claiming or inferring incompetence, when instead it would be profoundly more convincing to prove, using a valid academic method, that the consensus does not exist? You say yourself that you are “not sure anyone was trying to prove there’s no consensus”. I’m absolutely certain they aren’t, because they know already they can’t. I as said above, deniers can’t prove the lack of consensus because there isn’t one, so valid methods of demonstrating this are not available to them. All they have is the cheap options: opinion stated as fact, rhetoric, obfuscation and propaganda, and this is the point my article makes, and you’ve tried so very hard to avoid.

    “Climate science has invented this strange notion that the appropriate response to bad research is not to examine it and describe all the problems you find, but to carry out your own “better” research”.

    This statement is consistent with so much denial, in that it demonstrates a profound (or deliberate) failure to understand scientific method. The exact opposite of your claim is the case: the only way to prove that research was ‘bad’ is to do research that is better. Phlogiston was not found to be a theory in error by attacking the methodology by which the conclusion was reached. It was debunked by finding out the molecular composition of the atmosphere – better science. The mistaken cause of stomach ulcers was disproved by the discovery of the helicobacter pylori virus – better science – not by attacking the probity of doctors. Cold fusion was disproved not by attacking the methods of Fleischmann and Pons, but by repeating the same studies, all of which produced different results (e.g. no energy gain). And despite all the bluster of the denialists, every repetition of Mike Mann’s work came up with the same hockey stick. Where are the studies failing to produce Cook and Nuccitelli’s results, or Mike Mann’s? Nowhere!. Read the quote above again about how to settle academic disputes, which says much the same thing.

    “Unless you explain publicly and clearly what is WRONG with the original paper, readers have no basis for choosing to believe your paper instead. It just becomes he-said-she-said”.

    Claims that the paper are wrong are just ‘claims’. They prove nothing, mean nothing in scientific terms, and may or may not be credible for they are mere opinion – exactly the ‘he said, she said’ rubbish you claim to abhor. As for ‘choosing’ between one paper and another, again I point out there is no ‘other’ paper. You are demanding the public choose between a published, peer-review paper, and a wide variety of scurrilous opinions about the methods, all originating from the usual suspects. The public cannot choose some other paper instead of Cook’s work, because there isn’t another paper. And that’s exactly the point my article makes.

    “Bad research must be DEBUNKED, DISCREDITED, etc. Merely responding with “better” research can only dilute the misinformation.”

    Better research will ‘dilute the misinformation’? Are you serious? It is at this point that you abandon all vestiges of logic and rationality. Do not return here and attempt to post any more crap like this, as it won’t appear.

  11. Bill Everett permalink
    March 27, 2015 7:28 pm

    I wish to say, up front, that I am a layman and not a scientist. I have no quarrel with there being a 97 percent consensus but I’m not sure what the consensus is. If it is that the increase of man-made CO2 increases the greenhouse effect I can understand that. If it is that the increased man-made CO2 is causing the greenhouse effect to influence the surface temperatures we experience I am not convinced. Since water vapor is the cause of almost all of the greenhouse effect and since the man-made CO2 level is dwarfed by even the fluctuations of water vapor levels in the atmosphere I fail to see man’s significance as a driver of surface temperatures. Additionally, there seems to be no correlation between the steady rise of atmospheric CO2 levels and the stepped increase in global surface temperatures. The published World temperature graphs show alternating periods of warming and static temperatures with the periods about thirty years in duration. It would appear that while the greenhouse effect might have the potential to influence surface temperature, its contribution seems to be overwhelmed by the impact of other factors. I also wonder why some of the globe’s hottest surface temperatures occur in its dry regions where the effects of water vapor are largely absent. It would thus appear that the cooling effect of water vapor induced clouds plays more of a role in determining surface temperatures than water vapor’s greenhouse effect role. finally, I do not see how the greenhouse effect correlates with the varying path of the jet stream has a more obvious effect upon local surface temperatures.

  12. Graham Wayne permalink*
    March 28, 2015 12:05 pm

    Bill – if you really want to understand the various issues you’ve raised, you need to read a lot more about science, about how the climate works, and even some very basic geography regarding why the Earth is hotter at the equator than at the poles. I’m happy to discuss climate change, but what you’re asking for is educational material, and there are many good sources of information all over the web (and some bad ones of course). Nothing you’ve remarked on is accurate; all your ‘issues’ are products of a lack of knowledge. If you want to remedy that deficit, you do not need my help to do so.


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