Climate Skeptic Science: Approach with Caution

September 5, 2011

Stephen Lewandowsky has one of the best analytical posts on the Roy Spencer dustup of last week:

Science is self-correcting.

In the long run, occasional errors that slip into the peer-reviewed literature are ironed out.

Errors and mistaken assumptions cannot persist because publication of a peer-reviewed paper is only a first stage of peer review: The subsequent, even more rigorous stage of peer-review occurs after a paper’s publication and involves the scrutiny of scientific work by the entire field.

Bad papers are met with peer-reviewed rebuttals that dispatch them speedily – and thankfully – into oblivion.

Science is also resilient to wilful subversion of the scientific process.

Sadly, this resilience has been tested over and over again in the arena of climate science.

Although most so-called climate “sceptics” prudently avoid peer review – preferring the internet as an outlet for their pseudo-science – very occasionally a “sceptic” paper does appear in a peer-reviewed journal.

It will come as little surprise to anyone familiar with the science of climate change that those “sceptic” papers inevitably fail to withstand subsequent scrutiny. One by one, those papers are met with peer-reviewed rebuttals and then disappear into scientific obscurity, retaining dubious fame only on scurrilous denialist websites that specialise in ignoring actual science.

What is less well-known but which deserves greater public awareness is that those papers also often result from wilful subversion of the scientific process.

For example, in 2003 the reputable journal Climate Research published a paleoclimatological analysis that concluded – in flat contradiction to virtually all existing research – that the 20th century may not have been the warmest during the last millennium. This paper, partially funded by the American Petroleum Institute, attracted not only considerable public and political attention but also some highly unusual scientific fall-out.

First, three editors of the journal resigned in protest over its publication, including the incoming editor-in-chief. Second, this highly unusual mass resignation was followed by an even more unusual public statement from the publisher that acknowledged flaws in the journal’s editorial process. All those flaws involved one associate editor who has gone on to use material from right-wing think tanks and US lobby groups in preference to textbooks in his university teaching.

Three editorial resignations and a publisher’s acknowledgement of editorial flaws call for further examination of the authors.

The first author of this paper, Dr Willie Soon, is an astrophysicist by background. In US congressional testimony he identified his “training” in paleoclimatology as attendance at conferences, workshops, and summer schools. The people who teach such summer schools, actual climate scientists, published a scathing rebuttal of Soon’s paper, which has since disappeared from the scientific scene.

Undaunted, Dr Soon has continued to expand his sphere of ignorance, first becoming an “expert” on polar bears by publishing a paper that accused the US Geological Survey of being “unscientific”, and finally becoming an insta-expert on mercury poisoning, using the Wall Street Journal as a platform to assuage fears about mercury-contaminated fish because, after all, “mercury has always existed naturally in Earth’s environment”.

Astrophysics, polar bears, climate, mercury… what might explain this Da Vincian breadth of genius?

The answer appeared two months ago, when it became public that Dr Soon has been lusciously funded by the fossil-fuel industry for the last two decades: Exxon, Mobil, Texaco, the American Petroleum Institute, the Koch brothers, and all the other usual suspects. (By the way, coal-fired power plants emit mercury.)

Commercial sources of funding may well reflect only bold entrepreneurship and thus should not necessarily attract criticism. What should attract serious criticism, however, is that Dr Soondenied receiving funding from vested interests during US Congressional testimony in 2003.

Taking oil money is one thing; denying it in front of Congress during a hearing on climate is quite another.

Lest one think such subversion of the scientific process and dubious ethics are an isolated case, another scandal dramatically unfolded just last week. On Friday, September 2, Professor Wolfgang Wagner, editor-in-chief of the journal Remote Sensing announcing his resignation because a paper by a climate “sceptic” had appeared in the pages of his journal that should “not have been published“.

What happened?

What happened is worthy of careful analysis because it exemplifies how the climate denial machine operates.

Earlier this year, Remote Sensing published a paper by well-known climate “sceptic” Dr Roy Spencer which purported to show that climate models forecast more global warming than is expected to occur.

Thankfully, Dr Spencer has made every effort to clarify his political agenda. His book Fundanomics explains why the free market “should be celebrated by all social classes” and also reveals the “fallacies” which allow governments to “get away” with “tricks” such as “job programs”.

Yes, jobs programs are a “trick”.

If this leaves any ambiguity, Dr Spencer has offered further helpful clarification:

I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.

It is crucial to note that one cannot arrive at this position on the basis of geophysical data or theory: instead, this represents an agenda whose pursuit is likely to compromise one’s science in favour of ideology.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the publication of Spencer’s paper in Remote Sensing was met with a storm of publicity.

Actually, it was not publicity.

It was propaganda.

Forbes blared on July 27 that “New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole in Global Warming Alarmism“. Actually, NASA had nothing to do with the study. And true to form, Fox News screeched: “Does NASA Data Show Global Warming Lost in Space?

Actually, the study showed no such thing.

The reason the paper could not have shown any such thing is apparent from Professor Wagner’s resignation letter, which notes that “the main arguments of Spencer’s have already been refuted in open discussions and to some extent also in the literature, a fact which was ignored by Spencer and Braswell in their paper”. The problem of the paper “is not that it declared a minority view (which was later unfortunately much exaggerated by the public media) but that it essentially ignored the scientific arguments of its opponents”.

This then sums up the three main pillars of denialist “science”:

First, there is an agenda-setting ideology, often lubricated by vested interests.

Second, all prior falsifications of one’s own views are ignored, and a paper is submitted based on a selective literature review to a journal that is only tangentially relevant to climate (undoubtedly with helpful suggestions about “suitable” reviewers, to alleviate the selection chore of editors unfamiliar with the relevant literature).

Once a publication has been obtained by such dubious means, the propaganda machine goes into overdrive via blogs and ideologically-sympathetic news outlets, and yet another single paper is heralded as “disproving” global warming.

Does this matter?

Scientifically, no.

Science is resilient to abuse by isolated ideologues, and science is self-correcting.

In the case of Dr Spencer, the flaws of his paper will be detailed in a peer-reviewed rebuttal by Professor Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M University, which is scheduled for publication in Geophysical Research Letters – a journal with expertise in actual climate science – on Tuesday, September 6.

Alas, those flawed papers matter cognitively.

They matter cognitively because regardless of how thoroughly every single “sceptic” paper to date has been debunked within the scientific community, we know from much research in cognitive science that people cannot update their memories as easily as science can correct itself, when they are misinformed. Once people have acquired misinformation, they find it difficult to discount it even if they acknowledge and believe a subsequent correction.

This presents a pernicious problem in contemporary society in which misinformation, whether propagated wilfully or by accident, abounds and spreads like wildfire around the internet.

Fortunately, we also know that people can resist misinformation if they are warned ahead of time how and why misinformation is disseminated – in other words, if people are sceptical, in the true sense of that word, of the motives and techniques by which denialists seek to mislead.

For that reason, it is crucial to bear in mind that the next time a denialist publication gets hyped up by its author or by the media, this will again likely be the result of ideology or vested interests, and subterfuge or dubious editorial practices, and propaganda.

Ideology, subterfuge, and propaganda. That is all there is to climate denial.

Stephan Lewandowsky is a Winthrop Professor and Australian Professorial Fellow at the University of Western Australia. His research addresses the distinction between scepticism, cynicism, and denial. On twitter, he is @STWorg and on the web he and his colleagues can be found at


20 Responses to “Climate Skeptic Science: Approach with Caution”

  1. omnologos Says:

    I think that’s exactly how the PRC justifies its harsh censorship policies. Is that our future too?

    • otter17 Says:

      Wait, how exactly does Peoples Republic of China justify censorship policies? They use something similar to the scientific method? I don’t know what ideas China censors or the methods they use to do it, let alone the government’s motives. Do enlighten.

  2. omnologos Says:

    The article does make a clear distinction between “science” and “cognition”.

  3. otter17 Says:

    “Alas, those flawed papers matter cognitively.

    They matter cognitively because regardless of how thoroughly every single “sceptic” paper to date has been debunked within the scientific community, we know from much research in cognitive science that people cannot update their memories as easily as science can correct itself, when they are misinformed. Once people have acquired misinformation, they find it difficult to discount it even if they acknowledge and believe a subsequent correction.”

    More specifically, the article explains how the public’s cognition can potentially lag behind the forefront of scientific knowledge, particularly when misinformation is involved. Now, nobody wants to take away the public’s decisions based on an agreed upon body of knowledge. At the same time, there are guys pulling stunts like publishing to a little known journal outside the realm of climate science and shouting from the rooftops of sympathetic news outlets that the work blows a gaping hole in the results of a whole lot of past climate papers. That kind of funny business ought to be avoided since it messes with the way we as people come to agree upon a shared body of knowledge.

  4. hengistmcstone Says:

    Hi Peter, I clicked on the link to the NZ Herald about Chris de Freitas. I can’t find anything in there that actually supports the statement that de Freitas was using Heartland material in his lectures, are you sure that’s the right link ?

  5. livinginabox Says:

    When it comes to Climate Skeptic ‘Science’: It’s hard not to conclude that the correlation between funding and the conclusions drawn is that funding => causation.

  6. omnologos Says:

    otter17 – Wagner and Remote Sensing certainly believed to be well within the “realm of climate science”. But let’s assume you’re correct..what would you suggest to do to avoid the “funny business”?

    • otter17 Says:

      The article above describes what has been occurring in science for some time, and it seems well done. Peer reviewed rebuttals show up. Then the rebuttals are cited more often by other scientists and used as a basis for other good work in developing the theory. The flawed paper is generally ignored by most other experts in the field and doesn’t make it into reports by the National Academy of Sciences, etc.

      Sounds like good science to me. Heck scientists have even taken to investigating some of the more reasonable charges from outside the science community. For example, the paper [Menne, Williams, Palecki 2010] addressed Anthony Watts’ paper on the reliability of surface stations he published via the Heartland Institute [Watts, 2009]. Turns out, with a bit of actual analysis, the surface station biases were well accounted for in the reference network (in fact even a slight cool bias for high temperatures).

      Click to access menne-etal2010.pdf

    • otter17 Says:

      As far as the Remote Sensing journal’s relevance to climate science, it seems from what I have read so far that the journal is just starting out as an open access venue for publishing peer-reviewed technical material on methods and technology for remote sensing, particularly satellites. Here is the journal’s aims/scope page.

      If Spencer is going to produce a paper that is essentially a direct refutation of an earlier paper by Dessler in Science, why didn’t he publish in the well-known journals Science or Journal of Geophysical Research? Spencer even talks about refuting Dessler on his blog when the paper was up for publication. Why go to a journal that is obscure to the climate science community in that case? Why did Forbes and Fox News publish articles that indicate that this paper blew a gaping hole in existing climate science when the paper wasn’t even published in the more prestigious journals?

      Sure, Wagner THOUGHT his journal was up to task to review the Spencer/Braswell climate science paper. Look how well that turned out.

      • omnologos Says:

        Here’s Wagner starting out Remote Sensing in Feb 2009. Doesn’t strike like “obscure”, and he’s very much interested in contributing to climate science.

        The question, why not Science or JGR, doesn’t seem relevant. Many (many!) don’t publish there either. Science is not just what appears in Science and the “prestige” of a journal has as little to do with the merits of a paper, as the way the results are mentioned in the news media.

        If all hyped-up science were thrown to the bin, many landfills would have to be closed.

        • otter17 Says:

          When one publishes a paper that attempts to overturn a good deal of evidence for CO2’s contribution to global warming, it is a pretty big deal. Publishing that paper in a two year old journal devoted mostly to instrumentation, calibration, data, etc doesn’t seem a tad odd? Also, knowing that another scientist has a paper out there in “Science” that you wish to refute, yet not publishing to the same journal doesn’t seem a tad odd?

          >> “With this step I would also like to personally protest against how the authors and like-minded climate sceptics have much exaggerated the paper’s conclusions in public statements…”
          -Wolfgang Wagner

          This also doesn’t seem a bit odd, and a bit reckless/arrogant when taking a minority position?

          Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Science will take its course and resolve the issue with the Spencer/Braswell paper, one way or another. Also, further submissions to journals will likely be met with increased scrutiny.

  7. omnologos Says:

    So science’s OK as it is. What about the “cognitive” aspects?

    • otter17 Says:

      Well the public’s cognition could use a bit of work, in my opinion. It is basically all about how we come to make decisions, interpret facts, where we get our facts, etc. So many different people, so many different motivations, so many points of view, so it is a complicated problem that I probably don’t understand nearly as well as sociologist

      Nevertheless, one problem I would say is that people can just dismiss large swathes of the findings from groups like the National Academy of Sciences and the IPCC. These groups have analyzed the best, most cited peer-reviewed literature and results out there in the scientific world. They are made up of some of the best scientists with varying backgrounds, sometimes from around the world in the IPCC case. Those findings are the best overall picture of the body of science knowledge we can get.

      Some people trust doctors with their lives, engineers with their safety, and physicists with their knowledge of electromagnetism. What is it about climate science that causes the average Joe/Jane to think that he/she knows more than the National Academy of Sciences or seek out obviously biased sources? I can’t speak for everyone, but there is probably some substantial cognitive dissonance there. Whether it is the guy that hates everything that Al Gore likes or the free market fundamentalist that gags at the thought of government regulation, they probably started looking into global warming after their initial disgust with the proposed solutions. Essentially, some other belief trumps what the dependable science sources say. Not the best cognition, but hey, that’s people for you.

      • omnologos Says:

        There’s dissonance but not only where you see it. For example the appel to authority will sound anti-scientific to the hardcore citizen scientists (and to a great deal of engineers, if I may add). The unrelenting, biased pro-AGW reporting of 2007-2009 didn’t help either and I would go as far as to say that any statement nowadays linking the not-so-unusual such as Irene to the end of the world as we know it, is moving the debate even further away from NAS’s and the IPCC. Boy, wolf, cry.

        • Alteredstory Says:

          The thing is, saying “these are good sources”, or “these are experts” is not by default an appeal to authority. It’s a statement about the quality of the information given by that source, and in the case of science, it’s a statement about the accuracy of research – NOT about listening to the person because of who they are.

          The problem is that to someone who’s already biased and is LOOKING for “bad news”, it will sound like an appeal to authority, no matter what you say. It will also sound like that to anyone who doesn’t know how the peer-review process functions, or how much effort goes into checking things, even AFTER publication.

      • otter17 Says:

        As I understand it, the definition of cognitive dissonance boils down to a kind of “conflict of interest” in the mind that people want to remove right away. Often, the conflict is between an entrenched value system and new information. I just don’t see why a good chunk of the world’s population would go out of their way to believe something like anthropogenic global warming if it wasn’t truly a threat. What set of values directly conflicts with anti-AGW thinking? Maybe I’m just not being creative enough.

        As for the appeal to authority, the citizen scientists and engineers can of course carefully read the results from the scientific bodies. If they find an error, then they can go to the paper in question and take that up with the author or write their own peer-review literature if need be. It isn’t so much an appeal to authority, but as a realization that the scientific knowledge gleaned in this way is the most accurate to go on. I’m an engineer myself, and I don’t see why a great deal of the engineering profession would have a problem with this. Heck, we have professional societies with peer review and often highly regarded standards developed by those societies.

        As for the “unrelenting” pro-AGW reporting and Irene coverage, well that is a bit of a different matter. The motives here may not be based in cognitive dissonance, but just in the interest of a good story for some news outlets. Also, Irene was a big deal considering the extreme rarity of such flooding in that area of New England. I don’t know of anybody indicating that Irene was a hallmark for the end of the world, but as maybe a part of a troubling trend in rainfall events. As far as media bias, there are some compelling reasons to believe that there is a false balance in the media, where a minority view is given equal time.

        Click to access boykoff07-geoforum.pdf

        Anyway, hypothetical question. Say we need to reduce CO2 to zero within the next several decades or every human will die within 200 years or so. No adaptation will work at all. What is a mitigation strategy that works for omnologos? What policies or strategy gets the world to zero CO2 emissions by 2050-2060 with the least amount of heartache?

  8. I believe that there’s a simple and clear explanation for the cognitive issue, consisting of several parts:

    1. Some people allow their political preferences to determine their perception of reality.
    2. There are lots of people who lie to advance their political agendas.
    3. There are lots of really stupid people.

    Put those together and you get climate change denialism.

Leave a Reply to otter17 Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: