Take the Global Warming Taste Test

by Henry on May 5, 2005

There’s been a minor controversy recently over Naomi Oreskes’ literature study in Science. Oreske found that of 928 paper abstracts on climate change, taken from the ISI database, precisely none disagreed with the consensus view that anthropogenic climate change is real. Now Benny Peiser of Liverpool John Moores University says that after searching the same database, he’s found 34 article abstracts that “reject or doubt the view that human activities are the main drivers of the “the observed warming over the last 50 years.”” Peiser wrote a letter to Science, putting forward his alternate findings, which Science declined to publish; in Peiser’s view using “a contrived technicality as an excuse.” This has gotten some attention from the Telegraph, which hints at skulduggery and low standards in high scientific places.

Now, however, Tim Lambert has gotten Peiser to cough up the goods – the 34 (now, for some mysterious reason, 33) scientific abstracts that cast doubt on anthropogenic global warming. Tim is inviting readers to go through the abstracts, and record their own conclusions. My take after reading them: the claim that Peiser’s 33 abstracts “reject or doubt the view …” is completely unsustainable. There’s one undoubted rejection of the anthropogenic case (no. 27) – but it comes from that well-known arbiter of peer-reviewed scientific neutrality, the ‘Ad Hoc Committee on Global Climate Issues’ of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. There are a few others that could be construed as scepticism (the explicit ones appear to be either outdated or else personal views), but the vast majority of the papers that Peiser cites don’t even begin to make any general arguments about global warming, let alone claims that the anthropogenic argument is bogus. Abstracts no. 12, 13 and 25 aren’t even scientific research; they appear to be postmodern inquiries into the construction of scientific authority. If I’d been asked (while wearing my hat as a member of GWU’s Center for International Science and Technology Policy) to review Peiser’s letter and evidence for possible publication in a peer-reviewed journal, I’d have rejected them summarily, and made some fairly warm comments in my rejection letter. I’d have done exactly the same if it had been making the opposite argument (that is if Peiser had used similar evidence to argue that there was support for global warming). Simply put, I don’t think Peiser’s evidence even begins to provide proper support for his claims. But, in fairness to Peiser, he’s made the evidence that he’s using publicly available, so you can go over to Tim’s place and take the taste-test for yourself.

{ 27 comments }

1

Chris 05.05.05 at 4:07 pm

Try googling “Benny Peiser”. “Expert” on catastrophes (in general), asteroid collisions with Earth, the evolution of ancient sports, ritual slaughter in Judaism, and probably a few other things besides.

2

Cryptic Ned 05.05.05 at 5:09 pm

I’m very glad to hear this. I had assumed that it was spurious, but the Telegraph made it seem oh so reasonable! The fact is that just because a scientist’s paper is rejected by Science, you have no idea whether he is a genius who came a bit short, or someone with unpopular data that Science is trying to keep quiet, or a total idiot. However, if, once being rejected by Science, rather than trying to publish it in a journal that isn’t one of the top two in the world, said scientist goes straight to the press with vaguely phrased claims about bias against him, he isn’t actually a scientist at all.

But Henry…could you look at the Oreskes article, and just confirm, to your own satisfaction, that it is much less spurious than Peiser’s research?

And Chris, the fact that someone researches lots of unrelated things may not peg him as a fraud, if he’s basically doing statistical meta-analysis like this study. Witness Steven Levitt, for example.

3

Henry 05.05.05 at 5:25 pm

Ned – I haven’t seen the underlying data for Oreskes’ research. It _looks_ good from the Science article, but that obviously isn’t much of a test. What can be said though is that if the Peiser research is the best that skeptics can come up with when they go back and trawl through the same data, then Oreskes comes through very well indeed. The only piece that is clearly skeptical under Oreskes’ definition is the oil geologists’ piece, which would appear to be a thinly-disguised industry position-paper rather than a research article.

4

Erik 05.05.05 at 5:34 pm

The original Science piece is quite sloppy in that it doesn’t even mention the percentage that actually shows evidence for the consensus opinion, stating instead that 75% “explicitly or implicitly accept the consensus view.” That no paper finds evidence for the opposite position is informative but the other stats are blurred by the inclusion of the postmodern thingies and the papers that “don’t even begin to make any general arguments about global warming.”

5

RSL 05.05.05 at 5:47 pm

The really funny thing about this is that even if Peiser’s data were correct, they wouldn’t do anything but support the case that the scientific consensus is overwhelmingly in favor of the reality of human-caused global climate change. There aren’t many subjects where 96.4% of the experts agree and only 3.6% disagree.

If only the media would begin showing people those percentages when (in a flawed attempt at being objective)they decide they need to present both sides of the story. A good reporter would maybe mention the minority viewpoint, but would also put it in perspective by providing some measure of its prevalance among the scientific community. Unfortunately, our press tends to give equal time to both sides, which distorts the true picture, misleads the public, and actually makes the press complicit in the disinformation campaign being waged by parties with ulterior motives.

6

Erik 05.05.05 at 5:50 pm

ps. my comment assumed that Peiser looked at the same 928 articles, but I gather that the 34 posted were not in the original database

7

Nicholas Weininger 05.05.05 at 5:51 pm

If 12, 13, and 25 are taken from the same list Oreskes used, their inclusion casts doubt on the soundness of both her methods and Peiser’s. As you say, they’re not scientific research– so they shouldn’t be included in a list of scientific abstracts accepting the consensus view any more than they should be included in a list of doubters.

8

Nicholas Weininger 05.05.05 at 5:52 pm

Ah ha! Erik beats me to it.

9

tad brennan 05.06.05 at 7:12 am

rsi–
“If only the media would begin showing people those percentages when (in a flawed attempt at being objective)they decide they need to present both sides of the story”

Agreed. More of the “we report you decide” crap, as though it is not deeply misleading in some cases even to suggest that there is a controversy. (“New research; earth flat?”)

And you know what? I have the same problem with the title and final line of this post. Referring to the meta-analysis of scientific studies as a “taste test” sends the same kind of bad message, that somehow the answer will come down to a matter of personal taste, that there’s no objective truth, that it depends on perspective, etc. etc. The exact approach that undermines the status of science in our society.

It’s not a matter of a taste test, not at all. The validity of global warming is not in scientific doubt, and the fact that it is not in scientific doubt is not in scientific doubt. Peiser is a typical anti-science obscurantist, and talk of “taste tests” serves their agenda.

I’m sure HF did not intend this (or even meant to be taking a sarcastic poke at it), but it still leaves a bad taste….

10

Nudnik 05.06.05 at 8:06 am

Complete concensus in the scientific community??

Wasn’t the last time that happened was when Galileo was almost excommunicated for suggesting that the Sun does not go around the Earth?

11

Barry 05.06.05 at 8:23 am

Uh, no, nudnik. That was the Church. Scientists don’t excommunicate people and burn them (or threaten to).

12

Nudnik 05.06.05 at 8:49 am

Barry, you clearly haven’t had much contact with the scientific community.

13

Keith 05.06.05 at 9:02 am

Nudnik, the last time a majority of scientists were in agreement like this was when Darwin published his findings. There were dissenters but they were all Lemamrkians or Theists, analogous to the Scientists employed by oil companies and Free Market Worshippers who challenge Global Warming claims today.

14

eudoxis 05.06.05 at 9:31 am

An ISI database search using key words “global climate change” would yield the same references whether Peiser or Oreskes performs the search. Oreskes states she rejected papers that were “not about climate change”. Presumably, then, the abstracts Peiser uses to support his point were used by Oreskes as well. Still, Peiser doesn’t contradict the claim of a consensus, even if Oreskes’ essay reads along the lines of “4 out of 5 leading dentists surveyed don’t disagree that this toothpaste likely prevents cavities”. There are literally thousands of articles in the ISI that discuss climate change (7706 hits for the last 5 years alone). A quick search using “anthopogenic climate change” yields 84 articles and include some that directly challenge the consensus view (check for yourself), most along the lines of distrust of key findings of forcing in the climate models and swamping of human causes by other natural causes. Oreskes’ news essay is a bit sloppy. However, the statement by the IPCC rests directly on several key findings that point to human involvement and those findings have not been adequately challenged. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any researchers who try or researchers who strongly disagree with the consensus statement. (See survey here where 9.7% of climate scientists strongly disagree that climate change is mostly the result of anthropogenic causes.) It’s questionable, however, whether a coherent policy implication can arise from either those key findings or the consensus view, which so broad it’s rather meaningless.

15

Tim Lambert 05.06.05 at 9:38 am

Sorry eudoxis, but that survey of climate scientists is useless. The URL was posted to the climatesceptics list and anyone could participate, not just climate scientists. Details here.

16

Cryptic Ned 05.06.05 at 9:48 am

Wow, Tim Lambert, that’s very interesting. Even more interesting is that ALDaily used the “less than 10%” as their hook for linking to the Telegraph article, along with a snide aside about how Science and Nature would never report such politically incorrect results.

17

eudoxis 05.06.05 at 10:06 am

Sorry eudoxis, but that survey of climate scientists is useless. Perhaps that survey suffers from a selection problem in the same way Oreskes’ does. I still recommend the readers do an ISI search on keywords including anthropogenic climate change. Some of the articles are clearly revealing.

What bothers me, in general, about these types of discussions (I know this is somewhat tangental to the original post) is the implication that a particular policy viewpoint is indicative of underlying scientific support. Yet, policy proposals rest on assumptions about our ability to change what are widely varied estimations of actual effects of anthropogenic contributions while possibilities for such change does not enjoy any extensive scientific support. What ends up happening is that the discussion revolves around mostly settled issues, ie the earth is warming (or perhaps cooling) and humans are a major contributing cause, simply because the next question of what should be done about it is not really at the stage where any scientific consensus has emerged.

18

nofundy 05.06.05 at 10:16 am

If Peiser is not currently employed by the oil companies or their front organizations, he soon will be.

19

Brian S. 05.06.05 at 10:51 am

Eudoxis, do you care to match Peiser and post any of the abstracts that you say “directly challenge the consensus view”?

20

Nudnik 05.06.05 at 11:21 am

It seems completely intellectually vapid to attribute any opposition to the anthropogenic climate change theory to being “employed by oil companies”. It is not like those pushing the “global warming” theory don’t have anything to gain from it. There are billions of dollars going into this research. Clearly there is an incentive to make it seem as bad as possible in order to keep getting grants for more research, etc.

21

Michael Tobis 05.06.05 at 1:49 pm

Re # 20:

This is to me the single most exasperating attitude of the skeptics’ camp. I can take the rest of it but this one infallibly angers me, because it is exactly the opposite of the truth.

The actual incentive for scientists is to claim “more research is needed” rather than to say “look, there’s lots of useful science to do, but we already know that for policy purposes for the foreseeable future, less CO2 is better policy”.

If scientists are nevertheless acting against their personal interest in this matter, they may be doing so out of a sense that they are morally constrained to do so.

22

jbonik 05.06.05 at 2:35 pm

Here’s all I could dig up relating to oil money. He did contribute to a book published by the right wing think tank called (ominously) Internation Policy Network (IPN). The book was called “Adapt or Die: The science, politics and economics of climate change”.

IPN has gotten 50k from ExxonMobil in 2003 for “Climate Change Outreach”. Reference : here. The info on the payment to IPN is in in this pdf, under Public Information and Policy Research.

23

Dano 05.06.05 at 5:21 pm

Eudoxis, I searched ISI as you say. I got more hits than you did. Browsing thru the results, I’d say the proportion is not as you allege. Perhaps you can clarify what you mean with examples.

Best,

D

24

Stentor 05.07.05 at 10:17 am

Abstratct #25 is a real “WTF?” How do you take an article whose argument is that climate scientists overemphasize the uncertainty in their field, and construe it as casting doubt on the field’s findings?

25

bi 05.08.05 at 6:24 am

Nudnik: Excuse me? First you cast aspersions on people who agree that global warming is a problem, then you cry foul when others cast aspersions on people who think global warming isn’t a problem?

26

eudoxis 05.08.05 at 10:04 pm

Eudoxis, I searched ISI as you say. I got more hits than you did. Oreskes is not explicit about her search criteria, so we are left to guess. This highlights a problem with her essay. I searched the SCI database within the Web of Science using keywords without boolean operators. That, by the way is almost restrictive enough to generate a sufficiently small number of hits to come close to the 928 used by Oreskes, I get 1113 articles. Further tweaking might yield 928, questionably representative of the tens of thousands of papers published in the subject area of global warming.

27

Dano 05.09.05 at 9:53 am

Eudoxis, in order to limit distractions, I should have said:

I searched ISI on anthopogenic climate change, got more hits than you say, and browsing thru the results, I’d say the proportion is not as you allege. Perhaps you can clarify what you mean with examples .

How’s that?

Best,

D

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