It is said that scientists are lousy at communication, lousy at telling everyone else about their science, in understandable and compelling terms.
This is of course absurd. There are tens of millions of scientists, and dozens of them are really excellent communicators!
Among the many sciences, there is a science of science communication. It overlaps, unironically, with the science of conspiracy ideation, and borrows a great deal from the broader communication fields.
One of the leading science communicators of the day is cognitive scientist John Cook. John is at George Mason University. He is so tightly linked to the founding and development of the Skeptical Science project that “Skeptical Science” is the name of his Wikipedia entry. This binds John and his mission to a lot of us. Where we once might have said, “I am Spartacus,” we now say, “I am Skeptical. Science!” For John, it is just “I am SkepticalScience.”
Cook is likely known to you for the Consensus project. There were two main projects, a few years back, in which scientist attempted to measure the degree of consensus over the idea that anthropocentric climate change is real. (It is real, and the consensus is near 100% in both peer reviewed literature and the conclusions of actual scientists.) John and his colleagues did one of those, and beyond that, widely promoted the results so that everyone knows about it.
Like I said above, there are tens of millions of scientists. Developing and disseminating the results of consensus research in climate scientist was equivalent to being the only guy sticking your head up out of the trench in that movie, 1917. Science deniers, both avocational and bought-and-paid-for, got all over cook like skin on a grape. Didn’t phase him, though. He continued to develop a series of new projects including a massive online course (Making Sense of Climate Science Denial), an artificial intelligence system for detecting fake science, and most recently, the Cranky Uncle project.
I don’t have a cranky uncle anymore (he died). But I do have a lot of neighbors who like to write in ALL CAPS. They show up when I give a talk on climate change, and they bring their conspiracy theories, logical fallacies, cherry picked “facts”, absurd expectations, and references to fake research done by fake experts. It is a lot to deal with. But now, I can use the Lewis Black technique for dealing with evolution deniers, but instead of pulling out a trilobite, holding it up and saying “Fossil!” I can pull out a copy of Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change and say “Oh yeah? Imma look up what you just said in this BOOK!” or words to that effect.
You’ve heard about the “scientific method.” If your memory is excellent, and you took a lot of science classes in American schools, you learned two of them, because life science textbooks and physical science textbooks teach somewhat different concepts called “scientific method.” If you study the history of science, even at a superficial level, or do actual science, you will find that the “scientific method” you learned in high school, the very same “scientific method” people who either love or hate science, but are not scientists, and talk a lot about science, incessantly refer to, is not what scientists actually do. Neither the procedures for developing a study nor the inferential process of advancing understanding follow this method, or at least, not very often. Doing science is much more haphazard and opportunistic, nuanced and visceral, much less clean and predictable. Like the famous physicist once said, “The scientific method; that is what I fall back on when I can’t think of anything else do to.”
Steve Goddard, or as I like to call him, Dorothy (because Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz is his avatar, and I think he might live in Oz) is one of those science deniers who now and then produces a graphic that shows that global warming isn’t real. He is increasingly being ignored by even the ingenuous, but his latest attempt to deny reality has been slapped down so effectively by scientist and blogger Tamino that thought you should see it.
I’m just going to give you a little bit of the story, and then send you to Tamino’s excellent post.
First, here is Goddard’s graphic attempting to show that global warming is not real.
See how temperatures are going down? How can that be? Note that this is average maximum temperature over time, 1918-present, in the US.
Why 1918 (the data set goes back farther)? Why the US? Also, why is he using absolute temperatures instead of the usually used anomalies? Maybe he knows something we don’t know. Or, maybe he is counting on his audience not knowing some stuff that all the experts know.
Now look at this graph, produced by climate scientist Tamino.
That’s a silly graph, isn’t it. It appears to show the mean latitude of something over time. Of what? Of the stations used to estimate temperatures. How is this relevant to the present discussion?
Congressman Lamar Smith is a well known science denier, especially a climate science denier.
Recently, he admitted that the House committee he runs is a tool of the anti-science forces.
At a recent conference at the pro-Tobacco anti-Science Koch (and others) funded fake think tank Heartland, this happened:
Smith: Next week we’re going to have a hearing on our favorite subject of climate change and also on the scientific method, which has been repeatedly ignored by the so-called self-professed climate scientists.
Audience Member: I applaud you for saying you’ll be using the term climate studies, not climate science. But I also urge you to use the term politically correct science.
Smith: Good point. And I’ll start using those words if you’ll start using two words for me. The first is never, ever use the word progressive. Instead, use the word liberal. The second is never use the word ‘mainstream’ media, because they aren’t. Use ‘liberal’ media. Is that a deal? I’ll give you a bonus. When we talk about changing the Senate rules on ending filibusters, don’t use the word ‘nuclear’ option. That has a negative connotation. Use ‘democratic’ option.
Smith agreed with an audience member that the EPA should not be regulating air quality, and that there is no limit to how far he would go in dismantling the last 8 years of environmental regulation.
Smith (a Republican, but you already knew that) also noted that Trump (a Republican as well) would pretty much do whatever Smith and the Heartland Institute want him do to: Dismantle environmental regulations generally.
Smith’s top contributor last year was an energy company, and the top industry that funds his campaign is the Oil and Gas industry.
Scott Adams is the creator of Dilbert, the once funny but now highly repetitive cartoon about a nerd who has a job in an office.
Dr. Gavin Schmidt is high up in the top ten list of world class climate scientists. He is Director of the currently under siege GISS Unit of NASA, where much of the climate science done by that agency is carried out. If you read my blog, you’ve read his work, because you also read RealClimate, where GS writes about climate science in a manner designed to be understandable to the intelligent, honestly interested, thoughtful individual.
Adams has a history of going after core science concepts, often substituting scientific reality with his own. He has done so with climate science.
And, he’s done it again. In a recent blog post (of yesterday) Adams tries to “convince skeptics that climate change is a problem”
This is a re-hash of earlier posts he’s written, in which he does the old denial two step. Of course climate change is real, he says. I’m not a scientist, he says. I don’t know jack about climate science in particular, he says. Then, he uses up piles of ink telling climate scientists how they’ve got all the science wrong.
His objective, I assume, is to spread and nurture doubt about climate science and science in general.
Dr Schmidt caught a tweet of Adams’, pointing to his absurd blog post, and responded with a series of tweets addressing all the things.
I wanted to preserve this excellent, well documented and richly illustrated TweetTextBook, and it occurred to me that you might want to see it too. So, here are the tweets.
Feel free to add additional relevant tweets to the comments, if you like. I hope this doesn’t break the Internet.
But since I'm in the mood for a totally futile exercise, here's why his points are disingenuous at best. Let's start with models… 1/n
Via Media Matters of America. Very interesting segment.
Santer talks about what is is like to be a rogue scientist in a Donald Trump administration.
The words referred to here the twelve words, were part of the 1995 Second Assessment report of the IPCC. That report is regularly updated, and forms the scientific and policy basis for our thinking about climate change at the national and international level. I highly recommend that you have handy at all times what I like to think of as the human-readable version of the most current IPCC report: Dire Predictions, 2nd Edition: Understanding Climate Change
1) A new poll looks at conservative and liberal views of science. The findings are not especially unexpected, but the details are interesting. The image above is from this infographic, and the details are given here.
Yes, the detail are quite interesting.
2) If you care, there is some information on what the 2016 GOP candidates stand on climate change.
The title of this post is also the title of a new peer reviewed paper by Stephan Lewandowsky, Naomi Orskes, James Risbey, Ben Newell and Michael Smithson, published in Global Environmental Change. The article is Open Access, available here. Stephan Lewandosky has a blog post on it, in which he notes,
… we examine the effect of contrarian talking points that arise out of uncertainty on the scientific community itself. We show that although scientists are trained in dealing with uncertainty, there are several psychological and cognitive reasons why scientists may nevertheless be susceptible to uncertainty-based argumentation, even when scientists recognize those arguments as false and are actively rebutting them….
We highlight three well-known psychological mechanisms that may facilitate the seepage of contrarian memes into scientific discourse and thinking: ‘stereotype threat’, ‘pluralistic ignorance’ and the ‘third-person effect’.
Stereotype threat refers to the emotional and behavioural responses when a person is reminded of an adverse stereotype against a group to which they belong. Thus, when scientists are stereotyped as ‘alarmists’, a predicted response would be for them to try to avoid seeming alarmist by downplaying the degree of threat. There are now several studies that highlight this tendency by scientists to avoid highlighting risks, lest they be seen as ‘alarmist.’
Pluralistic ignorance describes the phenomenon which arises when a minority opinion is given disproportionate prominence in public debate, resulting in the majority of people incorrectly assuming their opinion is marginalized. Thus, a public discourse that asserts that the IPCC has exaggerated the threat of climate change may cause scientists who disagree to think their views are in the minority, and they may therefore feel inhibited from speaking out in public.
Finally, research shows that people generally believe that persuasive communications exert a stronger effect on others than on themselves: this is known as the third-person effect. However, in actual fact, people tend to be more affected by persuasive messages than they think. This suggests the scientific community may be susceptible to arguments against climate change even when they know them to be false.
I have little to add beyond Stephan’s overview (Sou has this, go check it out), and you can read the paper itself. I do think these questions are part of an even larger issue, of the influence of systematic well funded constant denialism on both the science and the implementation of science as public policy. Imagine if all the effort spent addressing contrarian claims was spent on doing more science or the translation of science into policy? One could argue that questioning the science strengthens it, and in many cases that may be true. But the denialism about climate science does not play that role. Contrarian arguments are not valid questions about the science, but rather, little more than self indulgent contrived nefarious sophistic yammering. That is not helpful; It does not strengthen the science. Rather, denialism has served to slow down the implementation of sensible energy policies, and has probably slowed down our collective effort to the extent that were the denialism ignored, or didn’t exist to begin with, we would be decades ahead of where we are now in addressing the existential issue of our time.
Lomborg’s scholarship in the area of climate and energy related policy has been repeatedly criticized and often described as far less than adequate. A typical Bjorn Lomborg missive on climate or energy policy seems to include instance after instance of inaccuracies, often taking the form of a statement of fact with a citation, where that fact or assertion is not to be found in the citation. Many regard his policies as “luke warm.” From the highly regarded Sketpical Science web site:
…examples of Luckwarmers include Matt Ridley, Nic Lewis, and Bjorn Lomborg. The University of Western Australia has been caught up in a major Luckwarmer controversy, having taken federal funds to set up a center from which Lomborg was expected to argue that the government’s money would be better spent on issues other than curbing global warming. In a sign that even Stage 3 climate denial is starting to become untenable, the resulting uproar forced the university to cancel plans for the center.
The UWA project received a great deal of critisim, and was seen by many as a move by Big Fossil to water down academic and government response to the critical issue of climate change. Graham Readfearn, writing for The Guardian, notes:
Danish political scientist and climate change contrarian Bjørn Lomborg says the poorest countries in the world need coal and climate change just isn’t as big a problem as some people make out.
Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott says “coal is good for humanity” and there are more pressing problems in the world than climate change, which he once described as “crap” but now says he accepts.
So it’s not surprising then that the latter should furnish the former with $4 million of taxpayer funds to start an Australian arm of Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Centre (CCC) at the University of Western Australia’s business school.
The Australian project was shut down after severe criticism from the global academic community as well as students and faculty within UWA. Predictably, Lombog had characterized this as an attack on free debate. From the Op Ed, “Opponents of free debate are celebrating. Last week…the University of Western Australia canceled its contract to host a planned research center, Australia Consensus, intended to apply economic cost-benefit analysis to development projects—giving policy makers a tool to ensure their aid budgets are spent wisely.
While Lomborg blames “activists” for shutting down the center, it is more widely believed that the project was criticized because, based on prior work done by Lomborg, any ensuing “cost-benefit analyses” would be academically weak and policy-irrelevant.
Central to the difference in overall approach (aside from allegations of poor scholarship) between Lomborg and many others is how poor or developing nations should proceed over coming decades. Lomborg seems to advocate that these nations go through the same economic and technological evolution as developed nations, building an energy infrastructure based mainly on fossil fuels, in order to industrialize and reach the standard of living presumed desired by those who live in those nations. The alternative, of course, is that development in these regions be done with lessons learned from the industrialized and developed world. We don’t ask rural Kenyans to install a wire-based analog phone system before using modern digital cell phone systems. With respect to energy, developing regions should implement clean energy with smart distribution rather than building hulking coal plants and committing for centuries to come to expensive and extensive electric grid systems that are now generally regarded as outdated.
Lomborg says enough about mitigating climate change effects, and developing green energy technologies, to be able to suggest that he supports these ideas when he is pushed up against the wall, as with the nixing of the Australian project. But his regular statements on specific policy points, frequent and well documented, tell a different story.
Lomborg claims that much of the policy development of the Copenhagen Institute is not even about climate change. To the extent that this is true, it may be part of the problem. As development occurs, energy is key. With development of energy technologies, climate change is key. Lomborg’s approach that the Copenhagen projects are mostly not about climate change is not an argument that he is doing something right. It is evidence that he is doing something wrong, and at the same time, is apparently unaware of this.
It is very important to remember, as this conversation unfolds, that the objections to Lomborg’s work, and to spending vast sums of money to support it, are only partly because of differences in approach. These objections also come from two other things. One is a sense that Lomborg is detached from scholarship and good analysis.
Dr Frank Jotzo, director of the Centre for Climate Ecnomics and Policy at the Australian National University, was once invited to write a paper for Lomborg’s centre in 2008, which was sharply critical of how the cost of the impacts of climate change were treated.
He told me:
Within the research community, particularly within the economics community, the Bjorn Lomborg enterprise has no academic credibility. It is seen as an outreach activity that is driven by specific set of objectives in terms of bringing particular messages into the public debate and in some cases making relatively extreme positions seem more acceptable in the public debate.
And, regarding energy policy vis-a-vis the Big Fossil,
…we had a look at Lomborg’s claims that the world’s poorest were crying out for more fossil fuels which, Lomborg argued, were the only real way they could drag themselves out of poverty…the positions Lomborg takes on these issues are underpinned by a nasty habit of picking the lowest available estimates of the costs of climate change impacts.
Last year, when Lomborg spoke to a coal company-sponsored event in Brisbane in the shadow of the G20 talks, Lomborg suggested that because the International Energy Agency (IEA) had developed one future scenario that saw growth in the burning of coal in poor countries, in particular in sub-Saharan Africa, that this somehow meant that fossil fuels were just what they needed.
Yet Lomborg ignored an important rejoinder to that assessment, which had come from the IEA itself, and which I pointed out at the time.
The IEA said its assessment for Africa was consistent with global warming of between 3C and 6C for the continent by the end of this century.
Lomborg’s prior written works could be, and actually have been (I am told), used in coursework on analytical approaches to policy as bad, not good, examples. And, although Lomborg often associates himself with Nobel Prize Winners (and rarely fails to note that) he is not known as a high powered, influential scholar in his area. A recent citation analysis of Lomborg’s work backs up that concern:
…I combed through his Google Scholar entries and dumped all the duplicates, I ignored all the magazine and newspaper articles (e.g., you can’t count opinion editorials in The Wall Street Journal as evidence of an academic track record), I cut out all non-articles (things Lomborg hadn’t actually written), omitted any website diatribes (e.g., blog posts and the like) and calculated his citation profile.
Based on my analysis, Lomborg’s Google Scholar h-index is 4 for his peer-reviewed articles. If I was being particularly generous and included all of Lomborg’s books, which have by far the most citations, then his h-index climbs to 9. However, none of his books is peer-reviewed, and in the case of his most infamous book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, it has been entirely discredited. As such, any reasonable academic selection committee would omit any metrics based on opinion-based books.
So, the best-case scenario is that Lomborg’s h-index is no more than 4. Given his appointment to Level D (Associate Professor) at a world-class university, the suggestion that he earned it on academic merit is not only laughable, it’s completely fraudulent. There is no way that his academic credentials had anything to do with the appointment.
Even a fresh-out-of-the-PhD postdoc with an h-index of only 3 or 4 would have trouble finding a job. As a rule of thumb, the h-index of a Level D appointment should be in the 20–30 range (this would vary among disciplines). Despite this variation, Lomborg’s h-index is so far off the mark that even accounting for uncertainty and difference of opinion, it’s nowhere near a senior academic appointment.
Copenhagen Consensus Center is a textbook example of what the IRS calls a “foreign conduit” and it frowns strongly on such things. It may also frown on governance and money flows like this…
…more than 60% went directly to Lomborg, travel and $853K promotion of his movie. According to Wikipedia it grossed $63K…
Even in a simple US charity, poor governance and obvious conflicts of interest are troublesome, but the foreign element invokes stringent extra rules. Legitimate US charities can send money to foreign charities, but from personal experience, even clearly reasonable cases like foreign universities require careful handling. It is unclear that Lomborg himself is a legitimate charity anywhere, but most of the money seems under his control. One might also wonder where income taxes are paid.
CCC seems to break many rules. Foreign citizen Lomborg is simultaneously CCC founder, president, and highest-paid employee. Most people are a little more subtle when trying to create conduits…
Both the flow of money and sources matter when thinking about a non profit research or policy institution. From DeSmog Blog:
A billionaire “vulture capitalist” and major backer of the US Republican Party is a major funder of the think tank of Danish climate science contrarian and fossil fuels advocate Bjørn Lomborg, DeSmogBlog has found.
New York-based hedge fund manager Paul Singer’s charitable foundation gave $200,000 to Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Center (CCC) in 2013, latest US tax disclosures reveal.
That was about a third of the CCC’s donations for the year 2013.
In 2011, George Mason University produced a survey of TV meteorologists demonstrating that more than 50% did not understand or accept that climate change was happening as a result of human caused greenhouse gas pollution. Just now, George Mason University has looked at this again and their results demonstrate a dramatic shift. Today, something close to 9 in 10 TV meteorologists in the US are on board with the science.
The dismal results of the 2011 survey resulted in the development of the Forecast the Facts project. Today, Forecast the Facts’ Deputy Director Emily Southard released the following statement:
Forecast the Facts is excited to learn that the number of meteorologists who accept that humans plays a role in climate change has increased from 50% to nearly 90% according to a recent GMU study. With viewers facing unprecedented climate-change induced heat waves, droughts, and flooding – it’s more important than ever that meteorologists, as some of the most trusted communicators on climate, accept the facts and present them to their audiences accordingly. We hope all meteorologists will follow suit and commit to broadcasting the truth on climate change.
The 2011 study is here (PDF), and this graph summarizes the results:
I’ve not seen the new study yet, just the press release, but if I get a copy of it I’ll post a link or show some pretty pictures or something …
ADDED: I’m still trying to get a copy of the report (there are technical problems at the site) but I did find this graphic summarizing it:
Meanwhile, here is an interview I did with Paul Douglas a while back, demonstrating that TV meteorologists can have some very important things to say about climate change!
Everyone at Skeptical Science spends a lot of their time reading the scientific literature and listening to experts. Without that we wouldn’t be able to write all the material that’s published on Skeptical Science. It’s a lot of work, especially when you do this with a critical eye. Our goal, after all, is to ensure that what we write reflects the scientific literature on the subject as accurately as possible.
The materials created by Skeptical Science are used by teachers, politicians, and of course by users on the internet to rebut climate myths. Thanks to this a lot of people have seen materials produced by us, even though they might not know that they have.
The website Skeptical Science wasn’t created overnight, nor was the team behind it assembled instantly. It started small with John Cook starting the website and publishing the first rebuttals to climate myths. As I wasn’t familiar with the story of how Skeptical Science evolved to the website it is today I had the idea to interview John about this. Despite John constantly saying “I’m just not that interesting” I eventually managed to get him in front of the camera to tell the story behind Skeptical Science.
The article released with this video can be found here:
The transcript, used resources, and citations for this video can be found here:
You can support me and the content that I create through Patreon.
Dana Nuccitelli is a key communicator in the climate change conversation. He is co-writer with John Abraham at the Climate Consensus – the 97% blog at the Guardian, and has contributed hundreds of entries to John Cook’s famous site SkepticalScience.com. He has measurably helped people to understand climate change science and the nuances of the false debate based over climate manufactured by science deniers.
And, he’s written a book!
Climatology Versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics fills a wide open niche in the climate science discussion. Dana powers through the literature on climate science, identifying and describing instances of the predictions, projections, or assertions made by climate science and compares these with assertions made by climate science contrarians, also known as deniers. (Though the distinction between denier and non-denier emerged later in the full time frame addressed in the book.) Simply put, Dana compares the two at several points to see which is correct: the projection that human generated greenhouse gas pollution warms the Earth and changes the climate, or the projection that it does not.
It turns out it does! But you knew that. But what you might not have realized is the overall time frame of how this situation has developed. Dana skillfully documents the deeply disturbing fact that the issue of global warming (and related things) has been settled for a very long time. Were it not for mainly fossil fuel industry funded anti-science activists, we would not be having this discussion today, and Dana would not have had to write his book. Rather, science would be focused on figuring out the remaining and important details of how the Earth’s climate system responds to human pollution as well as natural changes, and policy makers would be busy working out how to keep the Carbon in the ground. We probably would have had a price on Carbon years ago, and we’d probably be running our civilizations off of a very high and ever increasing percentage of clean (non fossil carbon) energy. But no, those denialists had to ruin it for everyone with their fake skepticism.
I asked Dana Nuccitelli, “What surprised you most while researching and writing this book?” and he told me,
I was surprised at how accurate mainstream climate scientists’ predictions about global warming have been, even using the earliest global climate models as early as 43 years ago. The earliest model predictions were based mainly on the warming expected from the increasing greenhouse effect, so it goes to show what a dominant factor carbon pollution has played on global temperature changes over the past half century.
I asked Dana who he had in mind as the most likely audience for this book. I’m sure it is for general readership, but I also felt it could be used in classes.
I wrote the book with the general public as my intended audience. I wanted to make explanations about some basic climate science concepts accessible to everyone. My publisher told me that they anticipate that universities and libraries will be the main purchasers of the book though, so they may have had class use in mind more than I did!
Dana covers the early days of climate science, discusses the “Astounding Accuracy of Early Climate Models (Chapter 3), discusses the development of the scientific consensus on climate change, and provides an excellent overview of the current situation with greenhouse gas pollution caused climate change.
Over the last year or so, it seems that the climate conversation is starting to shift. Major media outlets are changing their approach, not following the dictum of false balance. Climate change is starting to become a bigger factor in elections, in a good way. The President of the United States has openly called on Americans to reject science denialism. I asked Dana where he thought the climate change conversation might be going over the next couple of years, and if we might see addressing climate change as more routine rather than highly controversial in the future.
I think much of the media is starting to shift towards more accurate, responsible, and truly balanced coverage on climate change. The Washington Post has been doing a great job since they hired Chris Mooney. The Guardian’s climate coverage is excellent. TV media coverage has been improving, and some great shows like Years of Living Dangerously and Cosmos have tackled climate change.
I think journalists and producers are starting to understand the difference between false balance and actual balance in climate reporting, and that media shift will be critically important in accurately informing the public on this critical issue. Most people vastly underestimate the level of scientific consensus on human-caused global warming, and I think that can mostly be blamed on media false balance. If you regularly see one-on-one debates, it’s natural to assume the experts are divided and debating the issue at hand.
With human-caused global warming, that’s obviously no longer true, but that perceived debate explains why people still don’t view climate change as a top priority. That needs to change, but that won’t happen until we have truly balanced media coverage accurately informing the public. That was one of my key motivations in writing this book – to hold the climate contrarians accountable for their bad science and failed predictions, because so far the media has failed to do that.
Dana’s final chapter talks about the future, about what can and should happen. He notes that we have the technology in hand to solve the climate crisis, and that we are starting to apply it.
I strongly recommend this book for the general reader, but I would also suggest it for use in certain classes, either in high school or college. If you are a teacher and want to thoroughly cover the “Debate” over climate science, get this book.
Published by Praeger; 214 pages; copious notes; index; cool graphic.
And now, for a little video fun related to Dana’s book, climate science, and the scientific consensus on greenhouse gas pollution and its effects:
Dana on Typhoon Haiyan and Climate Change:
The Climate Consensus Project (John Cook, Dana “Nutelli” Nuccitelli, and others):
A typical climate science denier, John Spencer, talking about the Consensus Project. on “Andrew Neil vs Dana Nuccitelli”
What climate scientists and communicators do when they are not being challenged by climate contrarians:
If you have not been living in a cave, and had you been, I’d respect that, you know about Willie Soon Gate. Willie soon is a researcher on soft money at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon is well known for producing research of questionable quality that anemically attempts to buck the scientific consensus that human caused greenhouse gas pollution is rapidly raising the Earth’s temperature. Soon’s links to the fossil fuel industry have been known for some time, but recently, he has gotten into even more hot water over having published papers without properly disclosing that the work was funded by Big Fossil. The story is complex and I will not recite it here. What I want to do instead is to place the story in a larger context.
Soon did not arrive on the horizon recently. His involvement with anti-climate change science activism goes back over ten years. The rise of Willie Soon and the early effects of his ‘research’ on policy have been well documented in Michael Mann’s book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.
Let me give you the short version first, followed by elaboration using a handful of quotes from Mann’s book. Really, though, you should just go read the book. (By the way, if you do read it, consider leaving a review at Amazon; there has been a concerted effort by science denialists to leave bogus one star and otherwise horrid, inaccurate reviews on that site!)
The following graphic shows the march of global surface temperatures over the period we call the “Instrumental record,” which is the period of time best measured by thermometers and, later, satellites. The inset is a version of the famous “Hockey Stick Graph produced by Michael Mann and colleagues, showing recent warming in the context of previous natural variation. The inset shows both the “Hockey Stick” (in blue) and an independent reconstruction by the PAGES2k group (in green) which is an independent validation of the original Hockey Stick result.
This shows a the very end of period of mainly “natural variation” followed by a dramatic increase in surface temperatures owing to increased greenhouse gas pollution.
Here is a closeup of the same graph showing just the period of time over which the surface temperature variation, which amounts to an average increase, that is unambiguously anomalous compared to the past. This increase is pretty much entirely due to the effects of humans.
I’ve marked off a section of this graph that shows just the data since about 2003. This is the year that these two things happened: 1) Willie Soon co-authored two papers arguing that global warming wasn’t really happening, or was not human caused; and 2) Senator Jim Inhofe held Congressional hearings on climate change at which Soon, Mann, and others, testified.
There is no doubt whatsoever that action to reduce climate change has been slowed or even simply stopped in some cases by Big Fossil funded anti-science activism, which generally has involved an unholy marriage between crappy science and political maneuvering in Congress and elsewhere, a marriage involving a big dowery from fossil fuel interests. Willie Soon’s papers and Inhofe’s use of bad science is only part of the picture, but a key part, and at least, illustrative of the process. The following are brief quotes from Mann’s book describing part of the story. Again, read the book to get the full context and all of the details.
Soon after Mann and his colleagues published the Hockey Stick research, there was a range of reactions among which were attacks from the denialist community. One of these was a non peer reviewed piece put on a web site.
“The Summer of Our Discontent” (August 1998), had been invited from Sally Baliunas and Willie Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. [Suggesting] that we had extended the MBH98 hockey stick no further back in time than A.D. 1400 for fear of encountering the warmer temperatures of the medieval warm period—a charge that … is nonsensical, since the stopping point was entirely determined by objective statistical criteria. Second, they claimed that our reconstruction suffered from an issue known as the “divergence problem”…
In a section of his book called “The Paper That Launched a Half-Dozen Resignations,” Mann talks about the Soon and Baliunas paper. Both Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon were at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Soon being a protege of Baliunas’. She had previously worked on the role of the sun in the Earth’s climate system.
The two went on to publish a number of articles analyzing the relationships between records of past solar variability and climate. … the Soon and Baliunas article took the form of two nearly identical papers published simultaneously in two different journals in spring 2003. One version of the paper appeared in the journal Climate Research while the other (which, it turns out, was simply a longer, unedited version of the first, but with three more coauthors added) was published in the journal Energy and Environment. Duplicate publication of a paper is highly unusual, and in fact is strictly forbidden by most academic journals. That both the authors and the study had been supported by the American Petroleum Institute—each of the authors had a long history of fossil fuel industry funding—combined with the highly unusual dual publication of the paper raised some eyebrows. Questions had been raised, moreover, about the two journals that jointly published the paper. Climate Research had in the recent past published a spate of contrarian papers of questionable scientific merit. Some members of the editorial board had already expressed concern that one editor at the journal known for his advocacy for the fossil fuel industry.
[One of the journal’s editors,] Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen … quite remarkably confessed in an interview … “I’m following my political agenda—a bit, anyway. But isn’t that the right of the editor?” The Soon and Baliunas study claimed to contradict previous work—including our own—that suggested that the average warmth of the Northern Hemisphere in recent decades was unprecedented over a time frame of at least the past millennium.
Mann goes on to explain in detail why the papers were scientifically flawed, and notes that …
The authors in many cases had mischaracterized or misrepresented the past studies they claimed to be assessing in their meta-analysis … Paleoclimatologist Peter de Menocal of Columbia University/LDEO, for example, who had developed a proxy record of ocean surface temperature from sediments off the coast of Africa, indicated that “Mr. Soon and his colleagues could not justify their conclusions that the African record showed the 20th century as being unexceptional … My record has no business being used to address that question.”
In response to Soon and Baliunas,
A group of twelve leading climate scientists joined me in authoring a rebuttal to Soon and Baliunas in Eos, the official newsletter of the American Geophysical Union. … The American Geophysical Union considered our rejoinder important enough to issue a press release entitled “Leading Climate Scientists Reaffirm View That Late 20th Century Warming Was Unusual and Resulted from Human Activity” in early July 2003, just prior to the article’s publication. Nevertheless, the Soon and Baliunas study was immediately taken up by the U.S. Senate’s leading climate change denier, Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma.
This brings us to the use of Soon’s and other denialist work as a tool to develop a contrarian argument in a Senate Hearing. Senator James Inhofe, famous for claiming that climate change is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American public, chaired the hearing which was held in July 2003. Again, you should read Mann’s account for all the amazing details; it is a rousing story! In essence, Soon and his work were being used to argue against the importance of Global Warming, and Mann represented the scientific view. The story also involves Hillary Clinton (in case you were wondering about her position on climate change). Here’s the part of Mann’s recounting I want you to see:
Midway through the hearing, [ranking member] Jeffords dropped a bombshell. He announced that his staff had received a note from Hans Von Storch announcing his resignation as chief editor of the journal Climate Research, in protest over the publication of the Soon and Baliunas paper. Von Storch was no scientific ally of mine. Indeed … he and I had had disputes in the past regarding the relative merits of statistical climate reconstruction methods. But ally or not, Von Storch was outraged that such a transparently flawed paper had been published in his journal. His note, which Jeffords read aloud, was to the point: “My view … is that the review of the Soon et al. paper failed to detect significant methodological flaws … The paper should not have been published in this forum, not because of the eventual conclusion, but because of the insufficient evidence to draw this conclusion.” Von Storch’s resignation had been precipitated by the refusal of the journal’s publisher, Otto Kinne, to allow him to publish an editorial expressing his view that the peer review process had clearly failed with the Soon and Baliunas paper. Several other editors quit as well (ultimately six editors—half the editorial board—would quit in protest over the incident)….
Perhaps the single most troubling issue to arise from the Soon and Baliunas affair was that of apparent editorial malpractice. At the two journals that published versions of the paper, the peer review process appears to have been compromised to produce a study in the scientific literature that could be seized upon by those with a contrarian policy agenda. … It is particularly pernicious when that process is compromised or co-opted for political ends.
Funded, I’ll add, by Big Fossil.
I asked Michael Mann how much damage he reckons Soon and Baliunas, and others like them, have done to the process of developing good policies to combat climate change. He told me, “Well, they are the hired hands of the “Merchants of Doubt”, the ones who do the bidding of fossil fuel interests by muddying the waters and confusing the public into thinking that there is still a scientific debate about whether climate change is happening, whether it is due to human activity, and whether it is a problem. There is none. It is hard to know just how much damage these deniers-for-hire have done to our civilization and our planet by needlessly delaying the action necessary to avert dangerous climate change.
As a follow-up, I wondered if he thought the recent exposure of climate science denials tactics would change the nature of future Senate hearings for the better. “I do—in my dreams,” he said. “Sadly, we are not there yet. While there is a worthy debate to be had about how we confront the challenge of averting the climate change threat, there is no legitimate debate to be had about whether or not the problem exists. Currently we have a congress that is committed to keeping that fake debate alive, as we have seen all too recently in the antics of folks like Senator James “climate change is a hoax” Inhofe, who now controls the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. We have to get past that.”
Finally, I asked Mann if he saw evidence that the peer review process has ultimately been improved as a result of clear abuses by denialist authors, or the reaction of publishers to those abuses. He told me, “Well, I certainly think that the scientific community is now far more aware of some of the bad faith efforts that have been made by industry-funded climate change deniers to pollute the peer-reviewed literature with antiscientific, agenda-driven screeds. Cracks still exist in the system, but slowly they are being repaired as scientists and editors increasingly learn more about the forces of antiscience that are still very much at play today.”
The Willie Soon Story broke on Saturday night, having cloned off the front page of the Sunday New York Times into a few secondary sources. But we all saw it coming. Since then there has been quite a bit more written and there will be quite a bit more.
The main thing I want to add to the discussion is this. It is clear that Willie Soon was taking piles of Big Fossil money for his climate research. It is clear that his research was widely discredited in the mainstream scientific community. It should have been easy to check to see if he was using the money properly (mainly, with respect to disclosure on publication) and to discover that he was not. So, why did it take an article in the New York Times to alert the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics of a problem going on under their roof for over a decade? Was the administration of HSCA compliant? Ignorant? In short, what did they know and when did they know it? And, will there be any effort by the Smithsonian, or Harvard for that matter, to address this?
Worth thinking about.
The image in the above meme is Senator Jim Inhofe referring to a list of some 58 “climate scientists” who oppose the global warming consensus. One of them is Soon. Many of the others are not climate scientists, or even scientists. Many are well known deniers. This list was provided by the discredited Heartland Institute. Expect new scrutiny into each of those individuals over the next few days, to see if there are any other Willie Soons on the list.
Anyway, here are a few more items of interest that came across my desk this morning.
Davies drew attention to Soon’s funding disclosures last month after Soon and three colleagues published a paper in the Chinese journal Science Bulletin2 that presented results from a simple climate model to argue that burning all recoverable fossil fuel reserves would result in little more than 2.2°C warming. By comparison, models assessed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on average project around 4° of warming with unabated fossil fuel use by 2100 and further warming beyond that time. The paper was appended with the statement: “The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.” Davies wrote to the journal insisting that Soon’s past funding sources do constitute a conflict of interest that should have been reported.
Science Bulletin’s conflict of interest policy states that authors must disclose “all relationships or interests that could influence or bias the work,” including “professional interests or personal beliefs that may influence your research.” The policy also gives a series of example disclosures. The first reads, “Author A has received research grants from Company A.”
…as it turns out, our old pal Ken Cuccinelli, when he was (appallingly) Attorney General of Virginia and waging a witch-hunt against climate science (and specifically against leading climate scientist Michael Mann), was busy citing some of those fossil-fuel-funded climate science deniers. That includes, as you can see below (from Cooch’s “Civil Investigative Demand” against the University of Virginia, none other than…that’s right, Willie Soon, who was falsely smearing the meticulous research of Michael Mann and many other scientists on the famous “hockey stick” graph. Not that Cuccinelli acting like this comes as a big surprise, but still, it’s yet more evidence of how “in bed” with fossil fuel interests Cuccinelli was when he was Attorney General of Virginia. Now, can someone please explain to me why THAT is legal, even as Bob and Maureen McDonnell face possible jail time for their corrupt (but arguably, FAR less severe and damaging than Cooch’s) behavior?
A watchdog group called the Climate Investigations Center alerted nine scientific journals Monday that studies they published most likely breached conflict-of-interest protocols. The studies in question were co-authored by Willlie Soon, a prominent climate-change skeptic whose work was funded by fossil fuel interests.
The letters grew out of the release Saturday of public records showing that Soon failed to disclose industry funding in 11 studies published by those journals.
“…Much of the commentary on the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics hi-jinks has concerned how one of Dr Willie Soon’s sponsors the Southern Company had the right to examine and review any manuscripts that Dr. Willie Soon submitted for publication…” Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Hi-Jinks2
“…Amanda Preston was hip deep in the financials of Willie Soon’s support network. As the Advancement and External Affairs Officer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics she negotiated the terms for his support from Exxon Mobile among other things. Today she has moved on to be Executive Director of the Origins of Life Initiative at Harvard University, where, amongst other things she works works with faculty to squeeze out more dimes. …”
Regular readers of this blog will know Tom Harris, as he is an occasional commenter here. Tom is a climate science denier who wears an Invisibility Cloak of Concern. However, this particular Invisibilty Cloak was never worn by Ignotus Peverell; you can see right though it.
Brian Angliss, a journalist and engineer, is the science editor and climate and energy writer for the blog Scholars and Rogues. Brian has written an epic six part (five parts done so far, the sixth part will be an epilog) expose of Tom Harris’s previous commentary on climate science, prompted by a recent spate of Op Eds by Harris. I recommend visiting Brian’s posts not just to find out about Tom Harris, but to get a sense of how this particular brand of denialism works. You won’t be disappointed.