Friday, September 27, 2013

Wrongheadedness of scientific consensus fetishism in climate politics

By Denis G. Rancourt

It pains me to have to write this. It would pain me more to let it go without some kind of a fight.

In this post, I pick up a recent "blowhard" peer-reviewed experts' article [1] published by a most prestigious publisher and show that its two presumed-established starting assumptions -- that global warming is directly perceivable in increasing extreme weather events, and that there is a scientific consensus on global warming -- are at best groundless, and wrong, if the evidence matters at all.

Consider a recent article published in Nature Climate Change, entitled "The relationship between personal experience and belief in the reality of global warming" [1]. The authors of the paper lament:

Moreover, despite widespread agreement among climate scientists that human-caused climate change is occurring only two-thirds (66%) of Americans adults correctly understand that 'global warming is happening', and nearly half of these are only 'somewhat sure' (42%) or 'not at all sure' (5%) of their answer; moreover, only a third believe that they or their families will be harmed.

The authors go on to tentatively explain this US phenomenon as:

Current theories of cognitive science suggest that learning about abstractions requires analytical information processing, which involves cognitive effort-- a scarce commodity, which people expend sparingly.

Given the degree of certainty that these authors possess in complex areas that my own feeble (and scientifically trained) mind has difficulty evaluating, I decided to look up their main supporting references. After all, the reviewers at the Nature publications are no slouches when it comes to insisting that one cite the most reliable sources.

For their introductory statement:

Climate change is affecting every region by increasing the frequency and/or intensity of heat waves, droughts, precipitation, floods, hurricanes, and forest fires, and through impacts on ecosystems and species, including human health.

our authors cite Karl et al. [2], which is the 2009 Report of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). The latter Report is a large collaborative efforts to review the relevant published articles in order to draw conclusions (sound familiar?). This Report's 2nd key "finding" is:

Climate changes are underway in the United States and are projected to grow. Climate-related changes are already observed in the United States and its coastal waters. These include increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the ocean and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows. These changes are projected to grow.

In making this finding, the 2009 Report prominently relies on Kunkel et al. [3]. My survey of the data presented by Kunkel et al. shows me that the data itself is highly uncertain in two regards:
  1. It has broad statistical distributions, having widths that are greater than any theoretical (i.e. regression fitted) trends, and 
  2. It is subject to large systematic and uncontrolled uncertainties arising from the historical changes in measurement coverage (number of stations, geographical coverage, local climate effects, and so on), and methods.

Indeed, the chapter by Kunkel et al. is full of objective disclaimers such as:
  • "However, the heat waves of the 1930s remain the most severe in the United States historical record back to 1895."; 
  • "There is less confidence in data prior to about 1950."; 
  • "The data used to examine changes in the frequency and severity of tornadoes and severe thunder storms are inadequate to make definitive statements about actual changes."; and so on.

So we see how the definitive statement of our authors [1] that "Climate change is affecting every region by..." is anchored in some rather complex and tenuous real data buried several levels deep into government-funded review reports. The lead authors making the said claim work for a "Centre for Climate Change Communication". What do you expect them to say? And do they have the expertize to critically appreciate measured field data and statistical uncertainty theory? (I do.)

Our authors' [1] underlying assumption (in opposing 'personal experience' and 'belief') that global warming can be seen and experienced is, well, ludicrous. My own contribution to this public debate is illustrated in this media video: [4].

"Widespread agreement among climate scientists"

Next, I examine our authors' [1] claim that there is "widespread agreement among climate scientists that human-caused climate change is occurring", by examining their source: Anderegg et al. [5].

I have been critical of the scientific bandwagon artifact in global warming publications since my February 2007 essay "Global Warming: Truth or Dare?" [6][7]. The renowned late historian of science and technology David F. Noble provided a historical perspective on the "peer review" process and on the funding of science professionals, as an antidote to the excesses of "this new orthodoxy [which] is an exaggerated reverence for science" [8].

Furthermore, the said scientific bandwagon artifact has been formally described as the "Gold Effect" and is thus a well known phenomenon in the sociology of modern science [9]:

The Gold Effect is the phenomenon in which a scientific (often medical) idea is developed to the status of an accepted position within a professional body or association by the social process itself of scientific conferences, committees, and consensus building, despite not being supported by conclusive evidence. The effect was described by Professor T. Gold in 1979.[1] The effect was reviewed by Drs. Petr Skrabanek and James McCormick in their book Follies and Fallacies in Medicine.[2] The Gold Effect is used to analyze errors in public health policy and practice, such as the widespread use of cholesterol screening in the prevention of cardiovascular disease.[3]

In their book, Skrabanek and McCormick describe the Gold Effect as: "At the beginning a few people arrive at a state of near belief in some idea. A meeting is held to discuss the pros and cons of the idea. More people favouring the idea than those disinterested will be present. A representative committee will be nominated to prepare a collective volume to propagate and foster interest in the idea. The totality of resulting articles based on the idea will appear to show an increasing consensus. A specialised journal will be launched. Only orthodox or near orthodox articles will pass the referees and the editor."

Thus, in the light of what is known about the sociology and funding of the modern science enterprise, and in the light of the gargantuan financial interests at play in global warming politics [10], it is difficult to view the work of Anderegg et al. [5] as anything else other than either remarkably naive or remarkably crass. Let's see...

First, Anderegg et al. acknowledge, based on their own data, that there is not a scientific consensus on the the IPCC primary conclusion that "anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been responsible for 'most' of the 'unequivocal' warming of the Earth's average global temperature over the second half of the 20th century".

Second, they view this absence of a scientific consensus as a problem in need of a solution [5]:

Because the time line of decision-making is often more rapid than scientific consensus, examining the landscape of expert opinion can greatly inform such decision-making.

And their "solution" is to give little weight to the voices of scientists with which the majority of scientists do not agree (using their particular ad hoc "credibility" criterion) [5]:

This extensive analysis of the mainstream versus skeptical/contrarian researchers suggests a strong role for considering expert credibility in the relative weight of and attention to these groups of researchers in future discussions in media, policy, and public forums regarding anthropogenic climate change.

Who are these "contrarians"? Anderegg et al. [5] consider that, based on their study of 1,372 researchers, the "contrarians" are climate scientists who have published at least 20 scientific articles in climate science. Anderegg et al. find that their "contrarians" have typically each published between 20 and 250 articles about climate science.

But Anderegg et al. [5] find that the "contrarians" comprise only 1 researcher of the top 50 climate researchers, and only 3 researchers of the top 100 climate researchers. Here Anderegg et al. rank researchers according to the number of climate publications, and they ascribe number of climate publications (listed by Google Scholar) as equivalent to "expertise".

Are the top researchers those who have published the most papers? How many papers did Albert Einstein publish? (Very few.) Several researchers studied by Anderegg et al. published as many as 300-900 papers. These are astronomical numbers of publications that can only arise when one is head of a large and well-funded research group in which the group director puts his/her name on every paper. By comparison, consider that a modern Ph.D. program typically leads to only 3-5 substantive papers authored by the Ph.D. candidate. One does not publish 900 peer-reviewed papers by expressing "contrarian" interpretations, in a world where, by definition, most reviewers are not "contrarians".

More realistically, although not stressed in their article [5], Anderegg et al. show in their Figure 1 that 63 of their 270 climate scientists that published between 20 and 50 climate papers were "contrarians". That is, 23% of climate scientists who published 20-50 climate papers were "contrarians". Clearly not a consensus. In science, such a proportion of "contrarians" is more correctly qualified as an active and hotly debated field. Only government-funded review panels (made up of the government-funded "top" scientists) would have one believe differently.

How can we evaluate the "credibilities" of the "contrarians"? Anderegg et al. [5] argue that they "have likely compiled the strongest and most credentialed researchers in CE [convinced by the evidence] and UE [unconvinced by the evidence] groups", and that credibility is reliably measured by number of climate papers and number of times climate papers are cited by other scientists.

Anderegg et al. [5] find (their Figure 2) that the top 50 "contrarians" (UE) have only between 20 and 250 papers each (with one exception at 650 papers), whereas the 50 top warmists (CE) have between 300 and 900 papers each. To me this simply means that the most highly funded climate researchers all advance that they are convinced by the evidence that "anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been responsible for 'most' of the 'unequivocal' warming of the Earth's average global temperature over the second half of the 20th century". This impeccable correlation between apparent degree of funding and interpretation of the evidence would merit some research. Never mind...

Anderegg et al. [5] go on to explain that citation number further confirms that the "contrarians" have low credibility, however the actual data of Anderegg et al. show, instead, and again, an active and hotly debated field: The single most cited paper for each of the "contrarians" is cited an average of 105 times, compared to 172 times for the warmists. When one considers that there are fewer "contrarians" and that they are apparently less well funded, one has to be somewhat impressed that their papers are cited so frequently. One can justifiably argue that their citation numbers constitute evidence, in the demographic and economic circumstances, that their papers are scientifically "better".


The good news is that the common sense of the American people is alive and well. It is remarkable that in an "advanced democracy" the population does not entirely fall prey to the science of service "experts", fed to it by most of the establishment. Americans excel at self-defense against manipulative intellectualism.

Those, like our authors Myers et al. [1], who follow Anderegg et al. [5] in suggesting that scientists be ignored and that "the debate is over", based on the larger publication numbers of those scientists expressing the dominant view, are calling for a return to the dark ages. Science is not an exercise of representative democracy. Although polluted by politics, and led by money, science, in principle, is a search for truth that only works if there are "contrarians", and if those "contrarians" have a voice and an influence.

Yes, "contrarians" can be incompetent attention seekers, but they are also talented and principled scientists. Warmists can be scientifically mediocre funding seekers, and they can also be simply wrong.

Personally, I am baffled that any trained scientist with some knowledge of field measurements (i.e., measurements in the field), Earth systems, and statistical analysis could be "convinced by the evidence" that "anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been responsible for 'most' of the 'unequivocal' warming of the Earth's average global temperature over the second half of the 20th century". Especially in the further light of recent analyses of the failures of all climate models regarding the "non-warming" of the last 20 years [11]. This week's hot air from the IPCC changes none of this.

Denis G. Rancourt is a former tenured and full professor of physics at the University of Ottawa, Canada. He practiced several areas of science which were funded by a national agency and ran an internationally recognized laboratory. He has published over 100 articles in leading scientific journals and many social commentary essays. Several of his papers are highly cited in environmental science (link). His self-published 2011 paper "Radiation physics constraints on global warming: CO2 increase has little effect" has been downloaded more than 1000 times (link).


[1] Myers, T.A. et al., The relationship between personal experience and belief in the reality of global warming. Nature Climate Change, 2 December 2012, DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1754.

[2] Karl, T. R., Melillo, J. M. & Peterson, T. C. (eds) Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009).

[3] Kunkel, K.E., P.D. Bromirski, H.E. Brooks, T. Cavazos, A.V. Douglas, D.R. Easterling, K.A. Emanuel, P.Ya. Groisman, G.J. Holland, T.R. Knutson, J.P. Kossin, P.D. Komar, D.H. Levinson, and R.L. Smith, 2008: Observed changes in weather and climate extremes. In: Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate: Regions of Focus: North America, Hawaii, Caribbean, and U.S. Pacific Islands [Karl, T.R., G.A. Meehl, C.D. Miller, S.J. Hassol, A.M. Waple, and W.L. Murray (eds.)]. Synthesis and Assessment Product 3.3. U.S. Climate Change Science Program, Washington, DC, pp. 35-80.

[4] Peter Lavelle (host), Cross Talk: Franken-Climate, Russia Today, 2 November 2012.

[5] Anderegg, W. R. L., Prall, J. W., Harold, J. & Schneider, S. H. Expert credibility in climate change. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 12107-12109 (2010).

[6] Rancourt, D.G., Global Warming: Truth or Dare?, Activist Teacher, 27 February 2007.

[7] Rancourt, D.G., Some Big Lies of Science, Activist Teacher, 8 June 2010.

[8] Noble, David F., Regression on the Left, Climate Guy, 30 May 2007.

[9] Wikipedia. Gold Effect. 27 September 2013.

[10] Noble, David F., The Corporate Climate Coop, Activist Teacher, 1 May 2007.

[11] Fyfe, J.C. et al., Overestimated globalwarming over the past 20 years, Nature Climate Change, vol. 3, September 2013, pages 767-769.


VyseLegendaire said...

Do you think it would be fruitful to comment on the latest from Guy Mcpherson of 'Nature Bats Last', who is the most public/visible advocate for 'climate apocalypse' theory today? His hypothesis revolves around '25 tipping points' to which he is often adding, that all but seal humanity's fate of extinction within one human generation.

His claim of credibility comes from the 'peer reviewed, pre-eminent scientific journal' status of the studies he cites. Based on some of your recent posts, there is great issue to be taken, especially with 'peer reviewed science' (groupthink?).

He is very public and visible in the field and it might do some good to counter some of his potentially alarm-propogating proclamations.

His website is:

A latest post is here, but the page seems not to load at the moment:

A recent interview explaining his stances: starting at 9:00

Anonymous said...

Moreover, despite widespread agreement among climate scientists that human-caused climate change is occurring only two-thirds (66%) of Americans adults correctly understand that 'global warming is happening', and nearly half of these are only 'somewhat sure' (42%) or 'not at all sure' (5%) of their answer; moreover, only a third believe that they or their families will be harmed.

You can almost taste the arrogant
patronizing attitude in that
quote. I'm one of those "Ämerican
adults" myself and if you can't
back up what you claim (the data
exposed by "Çlimategate" is not
allowed) you should stop.