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Uncertain motives: Theil misrepresents the science

Posted on 14 June 2010 by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

Stefan Theil from Newsweek attempts to create the impression that scientists have been their own worst enemy and that the current and very real crisis of confidence in science by the public is a direct result of their actions. What is rather incredible, however, is that Theil makes his arguments without a single reference to the well funded and documented campaigns that have been launched by special interest against our scientific establishments.  No mention, for example, that the hacking of the e-mails from the CRU was the result of criminal activity.  No mention of the fact that two independent enquiries have in fact cleared the scientists and the science involved.  And no mention of the fact that industrial concerns such as Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries have secretly funnelled in tens of millions of dollars into funding a disinformation campaign against legitimate science.

With these sorts of misdeeds against them, scientists are also hampered by the resulting emergence of unqualified experts who claim grand conspiracy, cherry pick evidence and throw it back at science with a certain fait accompli. All the hallmarks of denialism.  Because science doesn't operate under the same rules (i.e. is not allowed to cherry pick evidence or misrepresent the facts), scientists have taken a beating in the public eye. This in itself is unfortunate but is not a reflection of the actual state of our knowledge and understanding of climate change.  Our most prestigious scientific societies and academies (to whom we go to for advice on every other complex scientific issue) have come to the consensus that the science is solid on climate change and that we need to be very concerned about its implications for our well-being.

Theil also tries to imply that there are significant differences of opinion in terms of whether we should worry about climate change or not.  This again is inaccurate representation of the actual state of the argument. The majority of scientists (and the best way to get a feeling to this is to look at the articles in the most prestigious journals, Science and Nature) are actually debating essentially whether the future is going to be extremely tough or if it is going to be catastrophic.  You only have to look at the majority of scientific articles and the consensus of the IPCC to understand where the state of play. It is clear that Theil hasn’t read these articles and has his own spin that he would like to deliver to the reader.

There is a certain irony in Theil misreporting.  For example, to claim that there are "dozens of IPCC exaggerations" is a gross exaggeration in itself. In over 1600 pages of the 4th assessment report from Working Group 2 there are but two demonstrated errors. One, which looks like it was a typographical error on the precise date (2350 not 2035) when Himalayan glaciers would melt completely (note, no one has disputed the main facts of the matter which are the glaciers all over the world are in dangerous and rapid retreat).  The other was to do with what proportion of the Netherlands is below sea level (26% not 55%). The incorrect information which was provided by the Dutch government has now been corrected. That is, this particular error wasn't even an IPCC error!  And I would challenge Theil to write 1600 pages of text and only get two things wrong.  In fact, in a little over 500 words here, Theil has made many more errors!

At the end of the day, this type of journalistic misinformation and stirring is simply not useful.  Science has taken a beating but not due to its own actions. Rather, scientists are facing an assault not unlike that of a tobacco industry of past decades on steroids.  This time the stakes are even higher. Hopefully responsible journalists will help communicate the real messages and urgency of science as opposed to become complicit in what is otherwise a dangerous misinformation campaign.

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Comments 1 to 24:

  1. You missed the error regarding the Amazon rain forest which it turns out was based on unsubstantiated claims made by environmentalists without any scientific background - yet it was allowed to remain in the IPCC report.

    Other documented errors include

    http://www.john-daly.com/forcing/moderr.htm

    In the end, reliance on the IPCC reports is simply not realistic - perhaps that is why the UN has initiated an investigation into the methodology and processes used by the Panel?
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    Response: The Amazon rain forest IPCC 'error' turned out to be accurate - the only mistake was misattributing it to an environmentalist report but the original info actually came from peer-reviewed research.
  2. The source of the CRU emails really doesn't matter. If they were leaked illegally, that doesn't negate the comments that are there. So the question for the public is: "are these comments the tip of the iceberg, or are they indicative of more widespread misbehavior".

    The two reports that "cleared" the scientists of criminal behavior appeared very hasty and not thorough at all. The fact that these reports were so hastily and poorly done really doesn't clear anyone of anything. That has to be done in a court of law.


    It is entirely correct that million and millions of dollars flow into climate research. That includes whatever comes from "special interests" such as big oil companies and power companies. It also includes grants at least 5 times as big from governments to research selected aspects of the climate. It doesn't speak well for the government-funded selection process that as noted a scientist as Dr. Pielke Sr. can't get a grant approved for what looks like a very interesting piece of work. Funds are dispersed by relatively low level bureaucrats according to the directions desired by the higher ups- not according to an even-handed, scientifically-driven research agenda.

    Cherry picking appears to occur in much of the climate science published. The infamous hockey stick graph(IPCC AR3) is a good example. 30 years of tree ring data were not shown because they did not support the desired result. An honest presentation of the research would have included a discussion of how this "divergence" in the tree ring data would reduce the utility of tree rings as a temperature proxy. The question being-"this later set of data did not follow the measured temperatures. How do we verify that similar excursions haven't happened in the earlier records?"

    Perhaps the Theil article didn't mention it, but mcuh of the problem with the various IPCC reports is not the actual data, but the artful use of language, selective use of data, and the limited view of the overall process(which was instituted specifically to assess the effects of man-made warming due to carbon dioxide rather than examine the real mechanisms that drive climate) and the misleading emphasis on the certainty of the conclusions. For the most part these statements of probability(such as 90% certain that the major cause of global warming is man-made CO2) are the opinions of a few lead editors in the process, not any kind of statistical certainty.

    Consensus is not science. The consensus in the 1500's was that the earth was the center of the universe based primarily on the science developed by the Greeks much earlier. New evidence from Galileo's astronomical observations that contained new information were not well received by the consensus. The consensus in climate science appears to have fixated on the effects of CO2 increasing in the atmosphere and putatively causing dire climate change. Very little effort has gone into an open-minded evaluation of other climate drivers. One example is the consideration of solar cycles. The most prominent view is that solar output has not changed very much and couldn't be the cause of climate change, even though sunspots have correlated very well with serious climate effects. Research into how variations in solar activity, other than just the raw radiation output, might affect climate is weakly supported and rather summarily dismissed as unimportant.
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  3. At least some part of the problem faced by scientists, particularly from the majority of their critics who are denialists, not sceptics, is self inflicted. In part, this arises from the understandable use of scientific jargon rather than language readily understood by the general public. In part it arises from the fact that when scientists are misrepresented, there is often no response from the aggrieved party, let alone legal action or the publicity which either would attract.

    We all know, or should do, that anyone able to disprove the broadly accepted findings of science as to the causes of climate change would win a Nobel Prize. We also know that none of the many deniers of AGW have achieved this. Why? Because the science is settled and simply can not be shown to be in error.

    The responsibility of all scientists goes beyond publishing in pier-reviewed journals. It goes to providing their findings and conclusions, in easily understood language, to journalists. Where necessary, scientists must be prepared to provide additional explanations and information to journalists to ensure they are well informed and have a good understanding.

    Journalists are all important to scientists since they are influential, will (and do) challenge the views of people like Lord Monckton and, above all, can present the public with information expressed in persuasive terms. Science needs journalists and journalists need to understand the findings of science and be able to express those findings in language we all understand. This does not happen often enough.
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  4. Geo Guy at 11:11 AM on 14 June, 2010
    "So the question for the public is: 'are these comments the tip of the iceberg, or are they indicative of more widespread misbehavior'."

    As a non-scientist member of the public I can assure you that niether of these questions mean anything to me. Many of your other concerns are thoroughly addressed on this site and elsewhere.
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  5. And Geo Guy, think of it this way; does it seem remotely possibly that a document of that complexity, put together by coordinating thousands of volunteers, could be created without a few errors in it?
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  6. Geo Guy - misinformation from Dietze is NOT "errors" in IPCC.

    philc - still getting this long-debunked stuff coming up. What "hiding" of the divergence? All those published papers on it? See debunking on this site. Also, millions of dollars on climate research - yes, but remember most of it goes on satellites, much of the remainder on ships. And yes, imaginary physics really struggles to get funding. You have a perfectly good, consistent, physically reasonable theory of climate and yet a desperate search goes on for anything at all for fairies instead.
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  7. Sorry, should have addressed my comments to philcnot Geo Guy. My apologies for the confusion.
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  8. Climate science and the IPCC reports have withstood a long, unrelenting assault and keep standing. None of the brouhaha and ideological grandstanding have made the slightest dent in the science.

    And despite all of the sound and fury, the public still overwhelmingly supports the science, the scientists, and government regulation of greenhouse gases. Survey results

    The Climate Majority
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  9. #2 Philc. Wow your post was so *funny* that I almost split my sides. So lets start the debunk from the beginning.
    "The source of the CRU emails really doesn't matter." Oh really-so if someone hacked *your* e-mail account & illegally disseminated your correspondence-out of context-you'd not have a problem with that? Even if the lack of context made you look like a thief, or murderer-or something even worse? Yeah right. The fact is that hacking is a CRIME, & needs to be punished. That this crime hasn't even been properly investigated yet leaves me thinking that the authorities *know* who were behind it-but are too scared to do anything about it.
    Of course, the shift towards hacking & going over the IPCC reports for minor typos & other errors shows the desperation of the Denialist Cult. Having *failed* to debunk the science for the last 30 years, they've now shifted to underhanded methods to try & discredit the scientists & the institutions they work for-yet even *that* tactic seems to be failing them!
    You mention the supposed "hiding" of the divergence between measured temperatures (using both Satellite & ground-based measurements) & tree-ring proxies. I confess that writing papers on it-& discussing its implications for proxy data-is a very funny way to *hide* something. What Briffa's tree-ring data (which was due to increased drought conditions in the areas studied over the last 30 years) revealed was the danger of over-reliance on a single source of proxy data, & has really paved the way for greater multi-proxy analysis of past climate. To suggest that tree rings-whose size are subject to environmental conditions *other* than temperature-might be more accurate than direct satellite or ground-based temperature measurements is completely laughable!
    Equally laughable is your claim that the Geocentric model of the solar system was a *scientific consensus*. In fact it was a *RELIGIOUS* consensus-one which flew in the face of the observations made by the Greeks & Romans almost 2,000 years earlier. Indeed, this is not unlike the *IDEOLOGICAL* consensus that humans are not responsible for global warming-even in the face of *decades* of research & direct observation. The reason for this ideological viewpoint is the many *BILLIONS* of dollars that the oil & coal industries stand to lose if real action is taken to combat global warming-much, *much* more than the mere millions of dollars that climatologists "might" stand to lose if Global Warming were somehow debunked tomorrow (this is unlikely, as climatologists & others in related fields will still have access to employment & funding whether AGW is real or not).
    What I'm also curious to know, PhilC, is where is your outrage at so-called "Skeptics" like MacLean-who deliberately spliced two graphs together-even though they had separate Y-axes-to "hide the incline" in temperatures over the last 60 years. Oh, but I guess denouncing your fellow "party members" isn't the done thing-much better to attack opponents-on flimsy evidence-like a good little Party Apperatchik.
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  10. Philc

    You are making a lot of pretty loose claims, but one of them I can't let lie.

    "Funds are dispersed by relatively low level bureaucrats according to the directions desired by the higher ups- not according to an even-handed, scientifically-driven research agenda."

    This statement seems ignorant of what actually happens. Some context.

    All scientists have pet projects they would like to get funded, but funding rates in US science generally have been very low over the last decade. In my discipline at NSF <10% of submitted grants have been for almost a decade. Those proposals get reviewed by 5-10 external reviewers and discussed in detail by a separate panel whose composition revolves with each cycle. So, literally dozens of people are involved in the review process over the course of several submissions. Similar structured exist for proposals through NASA, DOE and NOAA.

    The "higher ups" that you speak of are therefore actually the dozens of peer scientists that donate significant amounts of time reviewing a proposal over a cycle of several submissions. It's not a perfect system. Sometimes it can be a bit conservative, sometimes decisions can seem capricious. We all complain about how painful it is to get funded, and many like to imagine injustices to make themselves feel better about the rejection.

    But on the whole it works amazingly well. The program managers at NSF that I have worked with listen very seriously to the advice of reviewers, and generally follow that advice very closely. Every decision is documented. Having seen it in action, I simply can't imagine how anyone can think the funding system could be persisently manipulated by a small cadre of people with an agenda in the way suggested.
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  11. Journalism like that of Stefan Thiel, make my blood boil. I'm sure his motivation is just to write 'a good story' which he knows will have many of his readers' heads nodding in agreement. He can say literally what he likes, he's only answerable to an editor -- who more than likely knows nothing about the subject matter -- and next week he'll probably be writing entertainingly about the economy, or politics.

    The sad fact is that climate science is deeply boring to the vast majority of the public and they will make no effort to understand it. When that's the case it's a normal defence mechanism to rubbish it. Journalists like Theil are simply giving them what they want; and in the world he operates it simply does not occur to him that what he writes has any long term repercussions for the planet.
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  12. Geo Guy, you might be interested to know that the methodology and processes used by the Panel is reviewed after every assessment report. That is just simply good practice for any large organisation.
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  13. There's an interesting Opinion piece in Nature called "Defeating the merchants of doubt" about the agenda behind climate change "scepticism" and what scientists can do about it.

    I wonder what climate scientists are supposed to do with this information? [I wrote a very short blog post on this here. Should they use it to attack their critics or just stick to the science? Is it just useful background info?

    Why is this agenda and funding for the "sceptic" industry not more widely known and reported, especially when the relatively small revelations from "Climategate" recieved blanket coverage?
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  14. marty's link, supposedly about the science not being settled over man-made global warming, is to an article by Peter Taylor, author of 'Chill', a book which has the usual so-called skeptical arguments and which is published by a company who specialise in 'modern spirituality and personal development'.

    There is a short review of that book at this website, which also includes this quote from an autobiography Taylor has published, called SHIVA'S RAINBOW :

    "In truth, in the scientific realms in which I worked, and gained by now, some standing, I was an imposter. I am not a scientist. Apart from my brief survey of tree-hole communities when I successfully correlated insect larvae diversity with circumference and aspect of the hole to the sun, which, in any case, had been done many times before, I have never `done' science. In my work I have relied certainly upon an understanding of scientific theory and a memory for facts and relationships, and upon an instinct for the hidden and not yet known, but fundamentally I have been a linguist and an actor. My scientific degrees were linguistic exercises in critical review. My performances on television, in public inquiries, on tribunals and commissions, those of an extremely well-briefed lawyer, the ultimate actor. Which is not to say there is no dedication to truth" (pp. 146-7).
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  15. I think we need some media establishments that actually report news about journalists, newspapers and magazines.

    There must be a market now, because so many people think they make a mess of reporting.

    They thrust themselves into the limelight and think themselves as celebrities, it must be time to unpick their mad egos and start doing to them what they do to others.
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  16. "What is rather incredible, however, is that Theil makes his arguments without a single reference to the well funded and documented campaigns that have been launched by special interest against our scientific establishments."

    Yes, but sitting on one's hands (i.e. blank checks for Acedemia) could actually be more expensive and irresponsible.
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  17. Perhaps Science is failing by not providing better reasons to limit greenhouse gas emmisions. I have always felt that altering the chemistry of the Earth's atmosphere cannot be a good thing, and that we should definitely do all we can to conserve nature. This wishful thinking however does not make AGW any more real, since science is about being objective not emotional.
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  18. RSVP,
    "science is about being objective", indeed. So why you ask to provide better reasons? Science gave the picture and the probable outcome, it's now a political choice to act or not.
    We are free to choose to eventually destroy the planet, something like 'live (we) and let die (the others)' or 'after me the flood'. It's just a political choice.
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  19. At the end of "206 Bones", Kathy Riecks urges better standard in forensics. She is especially critical of "experts" used by police and the courts with few qualifications. An anthropology survey course does not make one an anthropologist.

    Right Kathy, but isn't science under attack across many disciplines. Creationist are still carrying torches and looking for Darwin. Geology is denied by " young earthers". Vaccines are blamed for all sorts of problems and medical science is under attack by fringes angry about stem cell research. All Doctors are regarded as fakes by some.

    Some seem motivated by problems understanding and dealing with real life, but the motives of others are darker. There is money, power and fame to be had in denial. Deny evolution, open a church and the bucks come rolling in. Write that vaccines kill and your book will sell. Deny climate change and get a job on Inhoff's staff. Lies about the "trick" attract followers to your website. Surface stations to close to hot air, sell your weather services. I am sure you can think of more examples.

    Climate science is under attack, but when seen in light of the number of people willing to deny rather than read a single article we see the pit bulls will never be more than a loud and frustrated rump puzzled by their lack of influence.
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  20. @#2 philc

    I think you misapprehend how the word "consensus" is used.

    It does not mean that the scientists agreed to agree. In this case, the consensus is a result of scientists from many different institutions and disciplines, from all over the world, competing against each other for resources and recognition, and using different methods independently coming to similar conclusions.

    Therefore it is a powerful indicator of validity, just the opposite of what you conclude.
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  21. #1 Geo Guy

    "In the end, reliance on the IPCC reports is simply not realistic - perhaps that is why the UN has initiated an investigation into the methodology and processes used by the Panel?"

    Actually, I think the reason they've done this is because it's necessary in order to counter the politically motivated attacks against them, even though they've made fewer demonstrable errors in their massive documents than the average "skeptic" makes in a single 100-word blog comment, and should therefore be far more credible by the skeptics' own alleged standards.

    In any case, that kind of critical self-examination and self-correction is precisely what makes the IPCC process scientific. And the lack of it is exactly why "skeptical" arguments never die, no matter how many times they've been debunked (cf. "hiding the decline").
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  22. Phila makes a very important point: these false arguments never die, no matter how much they deserve to die. And lack of critical self-examination certainly has a lot to do with the reason they never die, but the deeper reason is even worse: when we get right down to it, the so-called skeptics (and their paymasters) really do not care that what they are doing is so destructive. So of course they avoid the hard work that is "critical self-examination"
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  23. The Ville if you're looking for informed commentary on the reporting itself you could do worse than regularly checking the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

    KSJ Tracker is a service for science journalists, created and funded by the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and launched in May 2006. We believe that if science reporters and editors have convenient and timely access to the work of peers across the country, they can better evaluate and improve their own performance.

    Our goal is to provide a broad sampling of the past day’s science news and, where possible, of news releases or other news tips related to publication of science news in the general circulation news media, mainly of the U.S. Our goal is to have a new batch of posts up each day of the work week by 2 pm Eastern time.
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  24. The IPCC 2007 Himalayan glacier error was not a typo.

    I dont know here you get your information from, but since you deleted my previous comment suggesting lead authors knew the IPCC 2007 report's statement on himalayan glacier's was dubious, but decided to put it in anyway, for political reasons, here is the statement by the lead reviewer himself:

    "Dr Murari Lal also said he was well aware the statement, in the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), did not rest on peer-reviewed scientific research.

    In an interview with The Mail on Sunday, Dr Lal, the co-ordinating lead author of the report’s chapter on Asia, said: ‘It related to several countries in this region and their water sources. We thought that if we can highlight it, it will impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.
    ‘It had importance for the region, so we thought we should put it in.’"


    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1245636/Glacier-scientists-says-knew-data-verified.html#ixzz0rDKrbbIi


    To any normal-thinking person, this is what is called exagerating for political reasons.
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