A new paper examines what is behind the ~2% of climate change related peer reviewed research that run contrary to widely accepted scientific consensus on climate change to see why those papers are wrong.
There is a scientific consensus that increasing greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere causes surface warming, and that CO2 is a major greenhouse gas. This consensus is based on physics. We don’t need to observe the effects of human greenhouse gas pollution to know this. There is consensus that human burning of fossil fuel causes an increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. We don’t need to observe this to know it, because we know how combustion works. But it is relatively simple to measure, and it has been measured, and it is true. There is consensus that the planet’s surface has warmed. This is expected from the physics and the fact that we are increasing atmospheric CO2, but it is also relatively easy to measure, it is measured, and it is true. There are varying levels of understanding the effects of this process, and varying degrees to which the effects of surface warming are thought to cause specific effects. One could probably characterize the scientific consensus as a widespread understanding that surface warming has had and will have a range of effects, with many of those effects being changes in weather patterns or regional climatology (how warm/cool/dry/wet a region generally is across he seasons) arising from a combination of “natural variability” (what would happen without greenhouse gas pollution) and anthropogenic global warming.
It is interesting, then, to see the results of various studies of scientific consensus related to climate change. Two kinds of studies have been done. One asks scientists what they think, the other reviews the scientific literature to see what the peer reviewed papers that address climate change say. In both cases we see a number between 90 (or, really, 95) and 100 percent agreement on the stuff in the paragraph above. It is not surprising that the vast majority of scientists, and the vast majority of research papers, have very similar things to say about climate change. This is not new science, and while climate is very complex, the basics of anthropogenic global warming are well understood. The results of empirical research closely match expectations derived from the physics. It all hangs together pretty well.
What is surprising is to see that 3-6% or so disagreement. Who are those scientists, why do they disagree, what do those papers say?
I would assume that since consensus research takes time, and often looks at several years worth of papers, that some of that non-consensus reflects older thinking and older research. Also, there are climate contrarians, including some scientists, who oppose the consensus for reasons not based on the science. That sort of denial presumably comes from the simple fact that some corporations or wealthy individuals will see reduced profits as we make the inevitable shift away from fossil fuels. So some of that non-consensus may be bought and paid for self interested maneuvering.
Rasmus Benestad, Dana Nuccitelli, Stephan Lewandowsky, Katherine Hayhoe, Hans Olav Hygen, Rob van Dorland, and John Cook, in “Learning from mistakes in climate research” (Theoretical and Applied Climatology) looks at the non-consensus peer reviewed literature.
Among papers stating a position on anthropogenic global warming (AGW), 97 % endorse AGW. What is happening with the 2 % of papers that reject AGW? We examine a selection of papers rejecting AGW. An analytical tool has been developed to replicate and test the results and methods used in these studies; our replication reveals a number of methodological flaws, and a pattern of common mistakes emerges that is not visible when looking at single isolated cases. Thus, real-life scientific disputes in some cases can be resolved, and we can learn from mistakes. A common denominator seems to be missing contextual information or ignoring information that does not fit the conclusions, be it other relevant work or related geophysical data. In many cases, shortcomings are due to insufficient model evaluation, leading to results that are not universally valid but rather are an artifact of a particular experimental setup. Other typical weaknesses include false dichotomies, inappropriate statistical methods, or basing conclusions on misconceived or incomplete physics. We also argue that science is never settled and that both mainstream and contrarian papers must be subject to sustained scrutiny. The merit of replication is highlighted and we discuss how the quality of the scientific literature may benefit from
The researchers found that cherry picking was the most common explanation for the non-consensus papers contrary results. In other words, it is not the case that a small number of paper simply found the physics, or some other aspect of, global warming to be different than other researchers found, or that they were looking at a part of the system that acts differently. Rather, these papers were wrong, and for a specific reason.
We found that many contrarian research papers omitted important contextual information or ignored key data that did not fit the research conclusions. For example, in the discussion of a 2011 paper by Humlum et al. in our supplementary material, we note,
The core of the analysis carried out by [Humlum et al.] involved wavelet-based curve-fitting, with a vague idea that the moon and solar cycles somehow can affect the Earth’s climate. The most severe problem with the paper, however, was that it had discarded a large fraction of data for the Holocene which did not fit their claims.
The authors attempted a replication of that particular research, and found that the model they used only worked for part of the underlying data. The data that were ignored by Humlum et al contradicted their findings.
Another problem identified by Benestad et al is the lack of a consistent sensible alternative explanation for their alleged findings. “…there is no cohesive, consistent alternative theory to human-caused global warming. Some blame global warming on the sun, others on orbital cycles of other planets, others on ocean cycles, and so on. There is a 97% expert consensus on a cohesive theory that’s overwhelmingly supported by the scientific evidence, but the 2–3% of papers that reject that consensus are all over the map, even contradicting each other.”
Go read Dana Nuccitelli’s post in The Guardian for more discussion of this interesting new paper. Also, the lead author has a post on this paper at RealClimate.