Keeping score

It seems 300 names have been added to the original list of 400 “prominent scientists” who dispute things about climate change. If you follow that link there are a couple of good examples of the calibre of debate on the issue. I posted a few days ago about attempts to rubbish the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW). I can’t help myself, however, so I’ve been looking at the “highlights” of the 2009 update.

Needless to say, there’s no remotely valid methodology behind this whole exercise. The people on the list were not asked in a standardised fashion (say, via a questionnaire or interview) whether they believe AGW to be real or not. It appears that their quotes were simply harvested opportunistically from myriad sources of unknown reliability, while the reader is left to ponder (or ignore) the total absence of any argument for the existence of AGW. This is clearly not a survey, but nor does it attempt to paint any coherent picture of what the evidence itself tells us. It’s simply an exercise in industrial cherry-picking. Now, since the whole sordid result is in one convenient compilation, it has been endlessly regurgitated in blogs, forums and pseudo-news sites across the web. Grassroots climate change denialism* thrives on copy-and-paste.

Now for some of the people quoted.

First up there’s Ivar Giaever, a Nobel laureate. This is fantastic, but his Nobel Prize winning research was in superconducting, and it was half a century ago. You might recall that just two years ago the IPCC and Al Gore jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”. If Giaever’s Nobel Prize is a mark of authority, then what does that make Al Gore?

Second, we have  Dr. Joanne Simpson, whose heavily edited quote makes it sound like there’s a conspiracy going on in the research community. She is represented as a climate sceptic, but consider an excerpt from her full statement:

What should we as a nation do? Decisions have to be made on incomplete information. In this case, we must act on the recommendations of Gore and the IPCC because if we do not reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and the climate models are right, the planet as we know it will in this century become unsustainable. But as a scientist I remain skeptical.

Of the above excerpt, the report quotes only the highlighted part. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing for a scientist to say, but quoting such a remark without context is clearly very misleading, if not an act of deliberate deception. Scepticism means very different things in science and politics. How can a scientist who explicitly states that “we must act” on the IPCC’s recommendations be tagged as a dissenter from the consensus?

Third, there’s a  Dr. Kiminori Itoh, who describes himself as “physical chemist familiar with environmental sciences, and not particularly specialized in climate science. He is described in the list as a “UN IPCC scientist”, which is somewhat misleading because Itoh was a reviewer for the IPCC report, not a contributor to it. His quote, that “Warming fears are the ‘worst scientific scandal in the history…When people come to know what the truth is, they will feel deceived by science and scientists,'” is clearly mangled, and the second part isn’t actually his.

I’m selecting a small sample of quotes because it helps illustrate how the deception works. I clearly don’t have the time and energy to go through them all, but I shouldn’t have to because the methodology is rubbish to begin with. The introduction on page 2 is farcical enough. Consider the point being made – that there is no consensus on climate change. Now consider that throughout the entire document, virtually no attention is drawn to disagreements between those actually quoted. The report states that “The over 700 dissenting scientists are more than 13 times the number of UN scientists (52)”. If that ratio reflected the general balance of opinion, there would be a consensus – a consensus against the notion of AGW. However, nobody argues this, because it would imply that a large part of the world’s media, many of the world’s governments and most of its scientific institutions are part of a vast conspiracy. That’s the point where most people would – quite rightly – stop listening.

Even if we accept the legitimacy of the entire list of AGW sceptics, the 700:52 ratio is still complete nonsense. If someone had the patience to draft a list of “prominent scientists” who believe AGW to be real, by similarly harvesting every available quote, that list could easily run into many tens of thousands. But we don’t need to. More than ten years ago, when we were far less certain about AGW than we are now, a group of more than 1500 scientists actively urged “action at Kyoto”. The IPCC itself is a forum for hundreds of scientists actively contributing to fields relevant to AGW (not just the 52 who summarised the report). Its reports are endorsed by numerous other organisations, including the science academies of the G8+5 nations in a joint statement.

But that’s all irrelevant, because we have luminaries like Chris Allen, who assures us that AGW is wrong primarily because “it completely takes God out of the picture.”

* I don’t usually like using concocted terms like “denialism”, but there has to be a label for the kind of grossly dishonest, politically charged make-believe that goes far beyond scepticism and even cynicism. Scientists are right to keep an open mind about climate change – and for the most part that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. Denialism, by contrast, is something quite different. It seems to be broadly interested only in accumulating sound bites, treating the acquisition of quotes like a point-scoring system and stripping away all context and nuance.