Pious Fraud and Climate Skepticism

Pious fraud is the idea that sometimes it’s a good idea to lie to serve a higher good. In religion, it may mean lying about the origins of a sacred text or witnessing a miracle. In science, it may mean lying about a useless medical treatment to try and strengthen the  placebo effect. In Disney movies, it means giving an ordinary feather to Dumbo and telling him that it will magically help him to fly.  The ethics of pious fraud are therefore hotly contested.

The most recent entrant in the long and checkered history of pious fraud is the exaggerated claim that 97% of climate scientists all agree on climate change. The claim started out as a paper (not peer reviewed, btw) and then went on to get lots of airtime. Even President Obama tweeted it:

2014-02-27 Obama Consensus Tweet

There are lots of problems with the original paper and with the way that the paper has been used by others. Before we dig in, however, it’s important to carefully define the terms. The issue that is really at stake is not just a science issue, but a policy issue as well. It has 5 core components. They are:

  1. Climate change is really happening, and will continue to happen. (Implied: human forecasts are accurate.)
  2. The principle cause of climate change is human behavior (e.g. carbon emissions).
  3. The effects of climate change will, on balance, do much more harm than good.
  4. Climate change is largely reversible (e.g. we can do something about it).
  5. The costs of reversing climate change (e.g. with slower economic development for impoverished nations) are outweighed by the benefits.

As it turns out, however, the 97% paper successfully establishes near-universal scientific consensus on exactly none of these issues. Well, maybe on point #1, if you want to be generous. There are several articles out there castigating the authors of the paper for dishonesty and other shenanigans, but by far the strongest evidence of just how fraudulent the paper is comes from Popular Technology.

First, let’s explain how the 97% paper worked. Bjørn Lomborg (as reported in WattsUpWithThat) writes that:

The paper looks at 12,000 papers written in the last 25 years (see here, the paper doesn’t actually specify the numbers, http://notalotofpeopleknowthat.wordpress.com/2013/07/12/watch-the-pea/). It ditches about 8,000 papers because they don’t take a position.

They put people who agree into three different bins — 1.6% that explicitly endorse global warming with numbers, 23% that explicitly endorse global warming without numbers and then 74% that “implicitly endorse” because they’re looking at other issues with global warming that must mean they agree with human-caused global warming.

Voila, you got about 97% (actually here 98%, but because the authors haven’t released the numbers themselves, we have to rely on other quantitative assessments).

In other words, the 97% paper is based on interpreting the papers of various other climate scientists. So what Popular Technology did is actually quite simple, they asked the original authors if they agreed with how the 97% paper had characterized their articles. As it turns out: they did not. The 97% paper effectively drafted many of the most vocal and outspoken critics into the consensus regardless of their actual feelings. That would be bad enough. But, as the scientists described, the problems only get worse from there.

Let’s start with issue #2. Ostensibly, this should be the most reliable claim of the paper because it’s the whole point of the paper. Other folks, like President Obama, may have subsequently added on points 3-5 (which the paper itself didn’t claim), but surely the paper at least had some accuracy about the main issue it claimed to study? Not really. The problem is that the consensus being defended is what’s called the IPCC consensus (after the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), but the IPCC defined anthropic global warming as global warming that is caused 90%-100% by humans. That’s a pretty high bar. The 97% paper, on the other hand, lowered that bar to just 50% and it did so without explaining what they were doing or why. Dr. Scaffeta, who has a PhD in physics and whose paper was used by the 97% paper as evidence of the consensus, explains:

Cook et al. (2013) [the 97% paper] is based on a strawman argument because it does not correctly define the IPCC AGW theory, which is NOT that human emissions have contributed 50%+ of the global warming since 1900 but that almost 90-100% of the observed global warming was induced by human emission.

What my papers say is that the IPCC view is erroneous because about 40-70% of the global warming observed from 1900 to 2000 was induced by the sun. [emphasis added]

Please note that it is very important to clarify that the AGW advocated by the IPCC has always claimed that 90-100% of the warming observed since 1900 is due to anthropogenic emissions. While critics like me have always claimed that the data would approximately indicate a 50-50 natural-anthropogenic contribution at most. [emphasis added]

What it is observed right now is utter dishonesty by the IPCC advocates. Instead of apologizing and honestly acknowledging that the AGW theory as advocated by the IPCC is wrong because based on climate models that poorly reconstruct the solar signature and do not reproduce the natural oscillations of the climate (AMO, PDO, NAO etc.) and honestly acknowledging that the truth, as it is emerging, is closer to what claimed by IPCC critics like me since 2005, these people are trying to get the credit.

They are gradually engaging into a metamorphosis process to save face.[emphasis added]

This is why I say that none of the 5 points above are actually substantiated by the 97% paper. Not only do Scaffeta (and many more) reject the characterization of their papers, but they in fact have dissenting views about the causes of global warming. This has profound implications. If (to use Scafetta’s high estimate), 70% of the global warming from 1990 – 2000 is caused by the sun, then this means that the models used by the IPCC consensus are wrong and we can’t trust their forecasts (so much for points 1 and 3). It also means that we have significant reason to doubt whether or not there’s much humans can do about climate change (points 4 and 5).

This is far from the only explosive comment to come from these scientists, however. Dr. Nir J. Shaviv (PhD in astrophysics) was also cited as being a part of the 97% consensus, and also completely rejected that categorization. He wrote:

Nope… it [that the paper was part of the 97% consensus] is not an accurate representation. The paper shows that if cosmic rays are included in empirical climate sensitivity analyses, then one finds that different time scales consistently give a low climate sensitiviity. i.e., it supports the idea that cosmic rays affect the climate and that climate sensitivity is low. This means that part of the 20th century should be attributed to the increased solar activity and that 21st century warming under a business as usual scenario should be low (about 1°C).

I couldn’t write these things more explicitly in the paper because of the refereeing, however, you don’t have to be a genius to reach these conclusions from the paper. [emphasis added]

So, not only does he also find that cosmic rays must factor into some of the warming (and therefore also criticize the forecasts), he also points out that he was unable to express his true opinion because of the peer review process, which was basically censoring (albeit not very well) his true belief. Just as a quick summary of the rest of the findings, here are some additional comments from the scientists who spoke with Popular Technology about how they felt the 97% paper characterized their own work:

  • “It would be incorrect to claim that our paper was an endorsement of CO2-induced global warming.” (Dr. Craig D. Idso, Geography)
  • I think your data are a load of crap. Why is that a lie? I really think so.” and “I think your sampling strategy is a load of nonsense. How is that a misrepresentation? Did I falsely describe your sample?” (Dr. S. J. Tol, Economics, in a series of tweets to one of the authors of the 97% paper.) [emphasis original to the Popular Technology article]
  • “The paper is strongly against AGW, and documents its absence in the sea level observational facts. Also, it invalidates the mode of sea level handling by the IPCC.” (Dr. Nils-Axel Morner, Quaternary Geography, describing how his own paper is actually against the consensus.)
  • “I am sure that this rating of no position on AGW by CO2 is nowhere accurate nor correct…. I hope my scientific views and conclusions are clear to anyone that will spend time reading our papers. Cook et al. (2013) is not the study to read if you want to find out about what we say and conclude in our own scientific works.” (Dr. Willie Soon, Rocket Science, describing why the categorization of his paper as having “no position” on anthropic global warming was false. He added: “No extra comment on Cook et al. (2013) is necessary as it is not a paper aiming to help anyone understand the science.” [emphasis added])
  • “If Cook et al’s paper classifies my paper, ‘A Multidisciplinary, Science-Based Approach to the Economics of Climate Change’ as “explicitly endorses AGW but does not quantify or minimize,” nothing could be further from either my intent or the contents of my paper… I would classify my paper in Cook et al’s category (7): Explicit rejection with quantification.” (Dr. Alan Carlin, Economics) [emphasis original to Popular Technology piece]

The Popular Technology article concluded: “The Cook et al. (2013) study is obviously littered with falsely classified papers making its conclusions baseless and its promotion by those in the media misleading.” and added two followup analyses: Cook’s 97% Consensus Study Game Plan Revealed and The Statistical Destruction of the 97% Consensus.

Where does that leave us? The most charitable possible interpretation is that the 97% paper deliberately or negligently inflated consensus on this issue. The reason for doing this is obvious: it’s a policy paper rather than a scientific paper. It is designed to get people to support policies intended to curb global warming without actually proving that these policies are the right decisions to make. It is a pious fraud. When the paper is used by others who tack on issues 3-5 (harm, reversibility, and net-benefit of opposing global warming) they are compounding the same fraud which the paper was deliberately designed to initiate.

This is a very, very bad idea. It is a bad idea because it poisons the entire debate. If scientists are willing to blatantly lie and fabricate to try and win a policy war, how can we (especially we who are non-experts) trust the scientific “consensus”? If the consensus were as low as 33% of scientists but it was transparent and honest and included all 5 points, that would be enough to make the issue quite serious. If it was as high as 67% (with the same conditions) that would be enough to make me seriously consider supporting drastic policies. But to try and trick people into believing there is consensus on all 5 points when there is, at best, exaggerated consensus on just 1 or 2 points throws the entire policy argument into question. Now I know that people are lying to me, and I also know that I have no realistic way of estimating the extent of the fabrications. I have to weigh the uncertain efficacy and uncertain benefits of climate change remedies against their certain costs.

This is not a good position for someone to be in if they are truly worried about climate change. And it’s not a reasonable position to be in if you’re actually confident of the facts. The fact that we are in this position at all is the reason that I, like many other open-minded skeptics, look for other possible explanations to explain the absolutist rhetoric of the climate change alarmists.

10 thoughts on “Pious Fraud and Climate Skepticism”

  1. Thanks for the description. But the climate science field has long since been poisoned in multiple ways, such that there is really no possibility of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

    I believe that science (and indeed all discourse) is very sensitive to even small amounts of dishonesty – and that unexcluded and unpunished incompetence and dishonesty are so expedient in terms of attaining power, that they very rapidly overwhelm and obscure and suppress the ‘signal’ of honest and competent work.

    Since scientists depend on each other’s work, the corruption which has not been extirpated (but has instead been rewarded) will rapidly spread even into that of the honest and competent. This long since happened in climate science – as indeed it happened in much of medical research, and indeed (I am sorry to say) almost all of modern so-called-science.

    I I said in the title of a recent book, 99 percent (approx) of so-called ‘scientists’ are not-even-trying to be honest and competent nowadays – and this fact is very, very obvious becuase real scientists have zero tolerance for any kind of dishonesty – including hype, spin, exaggeration, and self-serving distortion!

  2. Ryan-

    This finding would be meaningful if the 97% paper was the only survey/poll. About a dozen large-scale surveys conducted by others using different methods found similar results.

    Well, as it turns out, not just “similar” results. Some times: identical results. And that’s a problem:

    At least 5 separate surveys since 2004 claim a 97% consensus, or in the case of Oreskes (2004) – a 75% consensus saying “Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.”

    This seemed to be a statistical coincidence that so many surveys could arrive at exactly the same result. Upon closer examination, this seemed an even more impressive claim since there are no common scientific constants in any of these studies.

    This is from a paper that goes into the methodology for many additional papers (like the ones you cite) and finds widespread problems.

    Common problems are similar to the ones cited in my original post: (1) playing fast and loose with terms to provide an appearance of supporting the IPCC finding without actually doing so (2) evidence of widespread suppression of papers critical of the consensus view and (3) serious problems in categorizing past papers.

    So here’s the sadly ironic thing: there’s not at all scientific about the papers that claim there’s scientific consensus. Given that ambiguity, I think getting a bunch of scientists to go on record that their papers have been miscategorized is actually quite meaningful.

    This is the harsh lesson of pious fraud, Ryan. Once it’s discovered, even genuine findings are called into question.

  3. This is the harsh lesson of pious fraud, Ryan. Once it’s discovered, even genuine findings are called into question.

    All finding are called into question. That’s science conducted correctly.
    Finishing a sentence with someone’s name is patronizing, Nathaniel. It makes discussions with you unpleasant. We’re both looking for the truth here.

    The link to “Friends of Science” is not compelling because the organization’s other name is the “Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists.” Shocker, that a group based in tar-sands country would support fossil fuels. They could very well be right, but I’m not going to trust that source.

    The politicization of climate science is a big problem. But lets take as true that five of the surveys mentioned are flawed. My first link lists at least five more surveys that use different sources to arrive at approximately the same conclusion. If the problems are as severe as people are saying, that ought to be easy.

  4. “All finding are called into question. That’s science conducted correctly.”

    I think you know what he means. True, scientific theories are and should be open to questioning at all times, but we generally trust that scientists aren’t lying to us or withholding evidence until we are given reason to believe otherwise. That’s the danger of pious fraud. Once trust is broken on a particular topic between experts and the public, all findings become suspect, and the public becomes that much harder to convince.

    “The politicization of climate science is a big problem. But lets take as true that five of the surveys mentioned are flawed. My first link lists at least five more surveys that use different sources to arrive at approximately the same conclusion. If the problems are as severe as people are saying, that ought to be easy.”

    So here’s the other issue with pious fraud. If guys like Nathaniel and I know that surveys citing near unanimous consensus consistently have methodological errors and misrepresentation, what’s going to motivate to read yet another survey in which we will most likely find more of the same?

  5. Once trust is broken on a particular topic between experts and the public, all findings become suspect

    To be clear: I think it’s obvious some amount of lying and misrepresenting good science is happening on the green side of the debate. Fossil-fuel-funded groups have a huge incentive to do the same for their own side. This is one of those issues where it’s hard to find information from people who don’t know their conclusions in advance. Both pious fraud and money-driven fraud are clearly going on, in my view.
    I would be concerned that climate change might not be real if clear fraud was going on and the debate was 50/50. The most conservative numbers I’ve seen put it at around 60/40. I don’t believe the 97/3 number, but I don’t think it’s a democracy either.
    Like others, I don’t have time to dig through these surveys. I do a quick Google Scholar search for “climate change” in the top-tier journals, like Science and Nature. They’ve clearly made up their minds and that’s good enough for me. Fraud going on in lower-tier journals is just noise.

  6. I personally have no problem with climate science. It seems to me that changes in habits of resource consumption as well as a population boom would have an effect on the environment. Of course, there is a history of natural changes in climate as well. The problem is that acceptance of a particular scientific finding typically translates into a narrow view of policy. That and many “green” groups will ignore very practical processes and technologies that are more environmentally friendly than their ideological preferences. There is a lot of assumptions beneath the surface: many seem to think that somehow we can achieve an Eden-like paradise if we just use wind power (or whatever). Life in society is about trade-offs, not full-blown solutions. Costs and benefits. There is also our incredible capacity to adapt, to innovate, to be more efficient. Perhaps we should let the innovators save the environment instead of activists and politicians.

  7. This is a very important issue – because Climate Science is not a real science, and Anthropogenic Global Warming is – by several orders of magnitude – the big fraud in the history of science.

    We are not talking about subtle distinctions here!


    Very luckily since I wrote the above, it seems that the high tide of anti-denialism has begun to ebb, and the savagery of persecution (and demands for still further persecution) of denialists seems to have drawn back – perhaps due to the Climategate Wikileaks revelations which I followed on Climate Audit – and were in general no surprise to me.

    When you are an habitual real scientist who has been schooled in habitual truth telling, it is usually easy to tell if other people are not being wholly honest because it is very unusual and distinctive behaviour; and this becomes very easy when they come from a community which is not even trying to be honest – but instead is striving to avoid being caught in a lie.

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  9. The Cook paper also asked authors to self-rate their own views on climate change. The response, with a response rate covering 2000 of the 4000 papers studied, also came in at 97% agreement.

    Anecdotally picking specific authors who felt misclassified does not make for a rigorous critique.

    Just as papers studying planetary motion no longer explicitly have to state their “belief” that the Earth revolves around the Sun, most authors do not feel the need to explicitly state the position on the issue of climate change. This does not invalidate the consensus provided by these papers providing “implicit” support. An example straight from the paper is cited: “‘. . . carbon sequestration in soil is important for mitigating global climate change”.

    As is standard in the scientific practice, the authors supply all their data, references, and methodology. Anybody can look through the papers they covered and determine whether they came to the correct conclusion – and people have. It can be hard for laymen to really understand the level of rigor required to publish in the sciences, in particular high-profile papers such as the Cook paper. It is easy to obfuscate for opponents, who rarely provide the same level of rigor. As someone else cited, there are also plenty more studies that provide similar consensus.

    Perhaps an important unasked question is: Why is there such skepticism and scrutiny against what is by far the better-defended and more rigorous side of the argument, while the skeptics are taken at face value? Confirmation bias is a strong instinct. This is in spite of the fact that skeptics are commonly funded by interest groups such as the oil and gas industries. Elementary critical analysis should have raised a red flag, when a scientific endeavor that potentially undercuts a multi-trillion dollar industry is then met by wholly unsurprising efforts to discredit and sow doubt. But no, it is most certainly the scientists who are engaging in lies and deception. Confirmation bias, indeed.

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