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A comprehensive review of research into misinformation

Posted on 13 October 2012 by John Cook

Congratulations to John Cook for being co-author on two peer-reviewed papers published this week, Nuccitelli et al. (2012) and the paper discussed in this post, Lewandowsky et al. (2012).

Last November, we released the Debunking Handbook, an introduction to the psychological research into misinformation and practical tips on how to successfully debunk myths. The booklet was intentionally short - briefly covering the research with the emphasis on practical tips for communicators. A more comprehensive scholarly review, Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing, has now been published in the journal Psychlogical Science in the Public Interest (and I'm happy to report the full paper is freely available to the public). The review is a thorough examination of the psychological research into misinformation but also provides a set of practical guidelines that are even more concise than the Debunking Handbook.

Four of the co-authors of the paper are scientists who have conducted much of the research - Stephan Lewandowsky (who gives a detailed two part interview about the paper), Ullrich Ecker (who wrote about the paper in The Conversation & Huffington Post), Colleen Seifert and Norbert Schwarz. The fifth co-author is myself. The paper looks at where misinformation comes from - from rumours, governments, vested interests and yes, the Internet. We explore the psychological research into what makes corrections fail, or even backfire.

Finally, we provide specific recommendations for the debunking of misinformation. This includes a graphic summary of the various problems to watch out for when you're refuting misinformation and suggested solutions. This is a very handy visual guide which if I'd thought of at the time would've included in the Debunking Handbook. If you find yourself frequently having to respond to misinformation, I suggest downloading this PDF and keeping a print-out near your monitor :-)

The Debunking Handbook and Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing were inspired by the absence of a practical summary of research into how to effectively refute misinformation. There is a wealth of research into this topic and communicators would do well to avail themselves of the existing body of knowledge. Hopefully both documents will prove useful resources in a period when misinformation abounds.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 39:

  1. This practical guide to refuting misinformation appears to be a very helpful tool. By refuting misinformation, a cohesive society can be developed that can dedicate their combined efforts into finding a solution for a problem rather than debating it.

    HOWEVER, there is no benefit in refuting misinformation only to introduce new misinformation.

    The purpose of this comment is not to take a particular stance in the Great Climate Change Debate but rather to highlight the misinformation that scientists and politicians on both sides of the debate are portraying to the public. I cannot overstate the value and necessity of science in such a critical time of potential concern but I strongly criticize the manner in which science is being employed. Scientific studies surrounding climate change, in a globally publicized topic of interest, are initialized trying to provide evidence for a preconceived condition. In doing so, conclusions and messages are teased out of the results, which align with the desired goal. These conclusions are then used in an attempt to disprove the opposing side’s conclusions and are treated as fact.

    The element that concerns me most in this debate is the mutual exclusivity of the opposing sides. I am a firm believer that anthropogenic activities are contributing to climate change but I take the conclusions from both sides of the debate with bitter caution. I believe the results from studies on both sides of the debate provide important information but it is the intensity and absolution of the conclusions that defray the public.

    Skepticism, like misinformation is a relative term depending on which side of any debate you stand for.

    “Climate Myths” versus “what the science really says…” ?
    This is only leading to a different version of misinformation

    Therefore, in my opinion, this debate consists of:
    • Society that believes in human-induced climate change
    • Society that does not believe in human-induced climate change
    • Society that doesn’t care
    • And science that is being used inappropriately as a decision swaying tool.

    The Great Climate Change Debate highlights just how little humanity really understands about the Earth and its environmental processes. I fear that regardless of the real influence of climate change, if science continues to be portrayed in the current manner within the debate, society’s confidence in the discipline of science will be severely weakened.
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  2. SA Dean

    It would be helpful if you gave even a single example of scientists spreading misinformation. You are just putting up a denier talking point. If you provide some specific examples of scientists providing misinformation we can begin to discuss your issue. If you cannot provide specific examples you are just hand waving.

    The issue in the AGW debate is that there is only one side with data to support their position. Your claim that the true result is somewhere the data and the deniers is unsupported.
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  3. SA Dean,

    Can you provide anything to make us credit your comment as anything more than a rather-less-than-novel tone-trolling attempt at thread hijacking?

    Yours in anticipation...
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  4. SA Dean:

    From a lay persons viewpoint it certainly looks as though there is a debate with scientific arguments on both sides. However, let me suggest a possibility: That that appearance is manufactured by one side, and that the actual state of scientific knowledge is very different to the perceived state.

    If that were the case, then in order to create the appearance of uncertainty, it would be necessary to create objections and uncertainties which sound scientifically plausible to the lay person. If the core elements of the scientific case were well founded in overwhelming evidence, then the falsity of those objections would be obvious to anyone who had sufficiently grounded themselves in the science and in particular in the underlying evidence, but may be completely opaque to anyone who had not.

    As far as I can tell, there are two approaches an interested person can use to determine whether this is the case:

    1. Scrupulously check every claim by the scientific sources (i.e. not NGOs, think tanks or media) on each side to determine the chain of evidence on which it is based. If one side turns out to consistently making unfounded arguments, that is suggestive.

    2. Sufficiently familiarise yourself with the science to be able to check the fundamental claims. This is surprisingly simple, as there are only three claims relevant to public policy: a) Is it warming? b) Why is it warming? and c) What will happen in the future? These questions are surprisingly easy to answer: I've posted 60 lines of code in a previous post which can be used to address the first two. The third in much simpler than it was 25 years ago when Hansen was making his statement to congress; thanks to the experiment we have been doing on our atmosphere, you can now get a rough answer with as little as 40 further lines of code.

    When I apply each of these two methods, they both point the same way. On this basis, I think that you characterization of the situation is not a realistic reflection of the reality.
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  5. SA Dean:

    I am curious as to the details of the point you are implying...

    "highlight the misinformation that scientists on both sides of the debate are portraying to the public."
    On what I will call the pro AGW side of the argument, who are the scientist and what is their misinformation?

    "strongly criticize the manner in which science is being employed."
    Doesn't the scientific method really only work one way and aren't objective metrics immune to subjective manipulation especially within the peer review community?

    "[...]preconceived condition. In doing so, conclusions and messages are teased out of the results, which align with the desired goal."
    Any submission to a respect journal that attempted this would get hammered and reputations would be tarnished.
    Gerlich-Tscheuschner 2009 learned this out the hard way.

    Though I would agree with you that there are a number of attempts to sway the debate as you've mentioned, my disagreement is that I don't see them on the pro AGW side of the ledger.
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  6. I suggest we not pile it on. If SA Dean has an integrity, s/he will respond.

    I second YubeDude's request for evidence of scientists providing misinformation to the public.
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  7. Let me be the first to say congratulations to John Cook for being a part of this publication.
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  8. Thank you all for the responses

    Firstly, let me clarify and admit that in the context of this blog I had a different definition of the word “misinformation” in mind. I was under the impression that misinformation was defined as: False, or inaccurate information that is spread without the intention to deceive with disinformation being defined as the same but with the motive to mislead. These definitions contradict the major Dictionary definitions that state: “false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive “. Bearing this contradictory definition in mind, I see why my comment gave the wrong message.

    Now in response to your comments, I agree that proponents of AGW do not intentionally attempt to deceive society. I honestly believe that scientists in climate science sincerely believe in what the data is telling them. This applies to scientists on both sides of the debate. However, I feel that conclusions based on results are somewhat subjective.

    Lets look at the most popular climate change example of the time-series trend between CO2 and temperature from the Vostok record. I think there are very few who would actually disagree that there wasn’t a strong correlation between the two variables. Where the disagreement comes in, is what is the relation and causation between the two variables?

    I now take a complexity thinking approach to the following problem based on Cilliers, P. (1998) Complexity and postmodernism: Understanding complex systems, London: Routledge. The take home message from this book is that complex systems cannot be studied using the traditional analytical method (breaking the system up into component parts to study) because it neglects the nearly infinite, dynamical, non-linear interactions with other components of the system. Cilliers mentions many other characteristics for a complex system such as uncertainty, feedback loops, open systems that cause boundary problems etc.

    The Earth and nested within that, its climate are complex systems. By its very nature, it is impossible to definitively understand the entire workings of the system with certainty. However, science provides humanity with the best possible obtainable knowledge about the system. But it is not perfect. We have seen time and time again how theories that were once considered fact were shown to be erroneous as new scientific information came to light. Look at the history of the atom.

    Going to YubeDubes comments about Peer Review and Journals. Consensus definitely doesn’t mean fact. In order to get an article published in a well-respected journal, the conclusions need to be within well-defined parameters of the consensual agreement. Most often, the consensus is right but two major scientists on which our society is based were known for going strongly against the consensus. Newton and Darwin. As at our current and best knowledge state, they were right and yet they were ridiculed.

    All this being said, I am not saying that AGW is not occurring. As stated in my first comment, I am actually a very firm believer of it and I am acting on it in my personal capacity.

    What I am criticizing is how AGW is considered FACT. The science does show overwhelming evidence that AGW is occurring and that it is the most probable cause of accelerated climate change. However, this does not mean that this is actually the case.

    Tying this in with the complexity thinking argument and in response to Kevin C.
    a) Is it warming? ….. Most certainly. No one could argue that
    b) Why is it warming? And c) what will happen in the future? …
    Can you really provide an answer with 100% certainty? If so, then I retract my entire argument. More likely, based on all your acquired knowledge, the majority of the convincing evidence you have been exposed to suggest the most likely cause of warming being AGW. The same is true for me, which is why I am a proponent. However this does not make us right. It just means that we are more likely to be right.

    Looking at the other side of the debate, I do not deny that there is a more manufactured state of scientific backing. I am merely suggesting that not all arguments from the “skeptic” side are implausible just because some are out-rightly invented. And although it is unlikely based on the scientific evidence, the skeptics may still be right, even though their methods may be questionable.

    I hope this clarifies my initial comment to a certain degree. I ask you kindly to respond to this comment, after having hopefully better explained my thinking.
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  9. SA Dean,
    Thank you forproviding examples that we can discuss.

    There is no scientific disagreement in the interpretation of the Vostok record. At that time, temperature began to rise, then CO2 rose as a feedback. The increasing CO2 caused more temperature increase. Today the situation is different. Humans are increasing CO2. The temperature is rising as a result of the CO2 pollution. People who tell you this is not understood are misleading you. Please provide your sources of information. Are they blogs or scientific sources? Why do you believe blogs that conflict with well known scientific findings?

    Weather is complex but the basics are well understood. In 1894 Arhennius calculated by hand a climate sensitivity of 4.5C. The currently accepted range is 2.0-4.5C. The argument that weather is too complex is an argument from ignorance coming from deniers who deliberatly do not try to understand the science. Ask scientists who study climate what is understood, not denier blogs.

    Darwin's theory was widely accepted immediately. Newton was recognized as a great scientist by his peers. Where do you find these wild claims?

    If you want to know with 100% certainty you will have to consult a psychic. In science nothing is considered 100%.

    If you wnat to understand the science I suggest you read more on this blog. The 2007 IPCC report is your best base until the new IPCC report comes out.

    My impression is that you have been reading a lot of denier blogs. I suggest you begin over as much as you can. You have a lot to unlearn. The science of climate change is well understood.
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  10. There is some interesting philosophy here:
    1. At what level do we consider the level of evidence and related confidence high enough to speak of a "fact"
    2. What level of "certainty" about a consequence (e.g. warming and its impact) is needed for acting on it?

    The answer to 1. could be given based on historical developments in different fields of science, I guess. While SADean seems to prefer a somewhat extreme (?) level of confidence, the consensus among climate scientists justifies speaking of "fact" IMHO.

    The answer to 2. varies with your ideology and value system. In most legal systems the bar can be very high, in (scientific) Risk Management it can be much lower.

    I have yet to see a skeptic intelligently commenting on either 1. or 2. The whole purpose of their actions appears to be to avoid such answers.

    Okay, back to the actual thread topic ... very helpful handout, thanks!
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  11. SA Dean, watch it with the "proponents of AGW." No scientist I know is a proponent of AGW. All of them accept the theory of AGW, but none want it to happen.

    Further to Michael's comment, you're never going to get 100% certainty on anything. The question, then, becomes "how much certainty do you need to act?" There is an answer to that question, because you manage to overcome uncertainty and act in myriad ways daily.

    As far as the past and complex systems go, even though the patterns within the system are written in the Earth, we don't actually need paleo studies or the Vostok record to support the theory of AGW. All we need is direct measurement of the theorized effect. We have that--at surface and from space. See Puckrin et al. (2004), for one example. That energy is building up in the system is almost 100% certain. Where that energy is going is now the task at hand. The complexity of that circulation is daunting, but it doesn't wipe away the fact that the energy is going to continue to build up and continue to be circulated. If we're off a few percentage points with regards to the amounts going into the oceans, ice mass loss, and tropospheric temp, well we'll get better. We have gotten better. CMIP5 is better. AR5 will discuss this improvement next year.
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  12. SOP for denialist sophistry is to request "empirical proof". Asking for the unobtainable as though "proof" or the statement of a "100% fact" can somehow falsified the generally accepted state of scientific understanding.

    To the lay-public or for those who watch Hannity this bridge too far appears to be both logical and reasonable; it is neither.
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  13. DSL: Your link to Puckrin et al is broken.
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  14. "The Earth and nested within that, its climate are complex systems. By its very nature, it is impossible to definitively understand the entire workings of the system with certainty."

    Science isn't about absolute certainty.

    "Consensus definitely doesn’t mean fact."

    Nobody claims it does.

    "Most often, the consensus is right but two major scientists on which our society is based were known for going strongly against the consensus. Newton and Darwin. As at our current and best knowledge state, they were right and yet they were ridiculed."

    Both had the main points of their theories accepted almost immediately. Newton was lionized. Evolution was accepted almost immediately after the publication of The Origin of Species.

    "What I am criticizing is how AGW is considered FACT."

    It *is* a fact. "Facts" are not absolutes that never can be questioned. They are conditional, like all knowledge about the world.

    "Can you really provide an answer with 100% certainty?"

    We can't say anything will happen with 100% certainty. So? Just because we don't know everything doesn't mean we know nothing.

    Maybe you should read less postmodernist books and more science books.
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  15. gws@10,

    I like the simplicity of your 2 short points that summarise the main problems with SA Dean's logic (improbable expectations) about climate science.

    Let's give some real examples of scientific findings that have been largely accepted in the past, even though their level of scientific understanding were lower than most aspects of climate science (e.g. double-role of CO2 as a forcing or feedback) known today:

    1.CFC release causes strato-O3 depletion
    2.Smoking signifficantly increases probability lung cancer
    3.Continental plates are moving as the result of processes in Earth' mantle
    4.Rutherford imperfect atom model (SA Dean's favorite example of "uncertainties in scinece") was and still is tought in schools as a useful approximation; Niels Bohr model extends it rather than contradicting it (no matter how much SA Dean would like to contradict it).

    Some of the above examples, even today, are still understood with less cetainty than the science of AGW.

    The second dillema - at what level of certainty the negative concequences must be acted upon - is also simple from the historical perspective. The first two on my list (negative env/health concequences) have been acted upon (with less certainty), with success.
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  16. Ugh: Puckrin et al. 2004
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  17. chriskoz. I especially like to set tectonic plate theory alongside climate theory.

    No-one sensible expects earth scientists to predict exactly when earthquakes or volcanic eruptions will occur. No-one was especially surprised that the Christchurch earthquake happened along a fault line that had not previously been identified.

    We all know and accept that it's not possible to know absolutely everything about the effects of these processes in advance. We'd like to do more but we know that's a bit much for current technology. Very much like climatologists can't yet determine with current technology exactly where energy is going or when and where it will show up again.

    No-one's yet explained to my satisfaction why seismologists get a pass that's not granted to climatologists.
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  18. Oh, and I should say ....

    The information model is terrific and I seriously do my best to apply it. I try.

    But it can be a bit tiring when you're dealing simultaneously with a hyperskeptic and a Gaia believer. I do hold my temper. I do keep on keeping on. I do remember that it's the lurkers who really matter.

    But I do get a bit fed up. Hey ho.
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  19. SA Dean:

    The argument that the climate system is too complex to understand is an interesting one. Note that it is a knowledge denying rather than a knowledge creating argument. This is typical of climate skeptic arguments - and it is a fingerprint of anti-scientific as opposed to scientific arguments. You can see exactly the same thing going on in other anti-science campaigns.

    But is it true? Well, no. All you have to do is look at the data to see that it is false. Let me show you. Here is a picture of some of the stronger influences on climate (forcings) - top - and the total of the forcings compared to global temperatures - bottom.

    It should be immediately obvious that there is a fairly simple relationship between the two, falsifying the complexity argument.

    But they could be more similar. We need to add in one further factor: The fact that, like an oven, the earth takes a little while to respond to it's control knob. See the red lines in the following figure:


    This very simple model (20 lines of code) is able to explain 20th century climate pretty well, and project ~50 years into the future. (In fact we now know some of the remaining discrepancies are due to biases in the temperature measurements, not problems with the model!). And it gives the same kind of answers as climate models, estimates from the glacial cycle, and estimates from deep geological time. For a full version of this calculation including uncertainties, see Padilla, Vallis & Rowley 2011.

    (Why didn't Hansen do this calculation? Because he didn't have the detailed forcing measurements, and most importantly, the results of the critical last 25 years of our experiment on the atmosphere. He has done it since.)

    That's just one line of evidence of many, based on one observable of many. We could look at many more. If you want just one, then look at the Earth's IR spectrum - a pure prediction from theory which was later tested by satellite. Also how it has changed over time.

    To put together a probability of climate science being wrong, we'd need to assimilate the probabilities of all the observations fitting a wrong theory, and have an alternative theory which could explain all those observations. And now we run into a piece of social evidence which relates to the initial argument. If we start looking at the alternative hypotheses, we start to see a pattern. The consensus theory is a single consistent theory which explains almost all the available data of many different types from the last 600m years. The alternative hypotheses advanced by different skeptics are inconsistent, and without exception address only a single period and type of data. In other words, they do not appear to be knowledge-building in the way real science does. They have the fingerprint of anti-science.

    That's only a start. We can look at the social, political and funding structures. If you haven't read 'Merchants of Doubt', that would be a good place to start. Is it likely that the same actors, financial motivations, and communications strategies which were part of a misinformation campaign when it came to smoking or DDT have suddenly got it right (despite the financial interests) when it comes to climate science.

    I don't think anyone has attempted a holistic estimate of the probability of climate science being wrong - the most I have seen is Knutti and Hegerl on the range of likely climate sensitivities - a single variable, ignoring all the additional observations of individual components of the system. Quantifying the social aspects would be harder, but they are going to further reduce rather than increase the chances.
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  20. Now about this theory of gravity...
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  21. Adelady@17:

    No-one's yet explained to my satisfaction why seismologists get a pass that's not granted to climatologists.

    Well, seismologists certainly don't always get a free pass, in Italy at least: Scientists face four years in prison for failing to predict earthquake.

    No doubt James Inhofe would approve.
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  22. Hmmm...comments 1 and 8, were from SA Dean. The rest were instructive and helpful, in a positive and polite manner, to those 2 posts.

    At this point, all hear is....





    ..crickets.

    Perhaps SA Dean will be back to engage, but...not being a betting man....

    adelady, I too have a bit of a *challenge*, seemingly unendingly battling hyper/fake skeptics; at this point in my life, I think it's all I can do, given the gravity of the situation.

    Then again, gravity is *only* a theory...>;=D
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  23. I should confess at the outset that I have an instinctive bias against the techniques described in the paper. It's not that I don't think that they can be effective, they clearly can be, not least because they are used by corporate PR departments, advertising agencies and political spin-doctors, and none of these groups would apply them if they didn't work. The problem is that I react negatively when I detect such methods directed at me, and my instinctive worldview is that I would prefer to have my information delivered to me straight, neutrally framed and unspun, and that I should, in turn, do the same when communicating to others. (Perhaps the authors of the paper should have taken more care first to affirm my worldview ;-})

    I also see several problems with applying these methods effectively in climate change communication.

    Firstly, how do we get people to listen? The truth about climate change is a dismal tale that has to compete in a world saturated with offerings of feel-good trivia.

    Secondly, how do we convince people that we, the communicators, should be trusted? People are increasingly and, perhaps rightly, unwilling these days to take anyone's word for anything. Inexpert attempts at framing or oversimplifying risks might even reduce our credibility.

    Thirdly, how do we change people's minds on climate one meme at a time, when their position is buttressed by an inter-connecting network of many individual misunderstandings (or myths, if you prefer). You can't remove and replace these ideas one by one and expect people to continue to function, any more than you can convert a gas-guzzler to a Nissan Leaf by replacing one spare part at a time. We can't just tinker, people need extreme makeovers.

    Fourthly, as a more practical matter, how do you apply these techniques to a rebuttal website like this? The guidelines say that myths need a pre-exposure warning, yet on this page, in the top left-hand sidebar, are the top ten climate myths, listed without warning, and you need to click on them to get to the rebuttals. (And the only climate scientists whose names permanently appear on the page are Christy, Spencer and Lindzen. There's no mention of Keeling, Hansen or the IPCC.) This framing doesn't bother me and I'm skeptical about how damaging this is to our communication efforts.

    I should stop there (less is more, I'm told ;-}).

    To be clear, I recognize that communicating the serious and urgent nature of climate change to the general public has largely failed and that the simple information deficit model doesn't work. We urgently to improve our performance and the Lewandowsky et al paper is instructive and illuminating in many ways. I just don't think that the recommendations in it will be sufficient; but I'm frankly at a loss to know what else to propose.
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  24. John Cook, thanks for posting this item. I am writing an essay on Peak Civilisation, including a chapter on climate change. I have now printed the PDF you linked and have it pinned to my workspace, alongside the printout of my mind map. Hopefully, it will help to keep me from detouring down dark labyrinths of denialistic mythology and keep me focussed on delivering the core message.
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  25. SA Dean:

    I have a few points I would like to make to you regarding your two posts, some of which have already been touched on by others:

    "Scientific studies surrounding climate change, in a globally publicized topic of interest, are initialized trying to provide evidence for a preconceived condition".

    All scientific investigations are advanced by positing a 'preconceived condition', which is normally referred to as a hypothesis. What you infer in your posts, however, is confirmation bias, where data are ignored, massaged or otherwise distorted, or methods are inadequate to the task of testing the hypothesis comprehensively. This issue is, of course, known to scientists who, in response, employ the scientific method to ensure that such bias is rooted out by independant testing. A recent demonstration of the efficacy of this method is cold fusion, in which eminent and respected scientists none the less found themselves on the wrong side of their own confusion (however it was caused). The important point to note is that cold fusion was debunked by better (i.e. more rigorous) science - and not by opinion.

    "In doing so, conclusions and messages are teased out of the results, which align with the desired goal".

    This accusation, unsupported by a single example, is similar in my view to discussions of motive, which I find specious and weak. If you wish to make such an accusation, and it be credible, it is necessary to provide evidence. Accusations based on vague generalisations are too reminiscent of the very misinformation you claim to abhor.


    "These conclusions are then used in an attempt to disprove the opposing side’s conclusions and are treated as fact"

    There is a broader context to this remark, which is your mistaken conviction there are 'opposing sides' - for there are not. While science is certainly competetive, it is not adversarial. Adversarial systems depend on both sides having arguments of equal merit. In politics, for example, one's opinions about the best social systems remain just that: opinions. There is no 'proof' that one way of living is better than another, so either side can claim validity without disproving the opposing viewpoint. (This is also, regrettably, the foundation of demagoguery, since claim and counter-claim require nothing more than the air expended in the expression).

    Again, referring to your concern to limit misinformation, it seems unfortunate that you choose to repeat and propagate one of the principle myths of climate denial - that science is somehow divided, that there is a debate raging within the scientific community. There is not: as many studies have demonstrated, 97% of climate scientists agree with the broad position documented by the IPCC. Only a small, and increasingly discredited, number of qualified scientists take issue with the science, and do so without being able to publish adequate scientific examinations of their own dissent using the scientific method I referred to above.

    For your claim to be valid - that there are two sides - both sides have to have credible, but mutually exclusive scientific theories, backed up by empirical evidence. This is clearly not the case: the most damning evidence against 'the other side' of the climate debate is the shocking absence of any rigorous science, a point that this site set out to prove by debunking every bit of bad science employed by those who would take issue with the anthropogenic component of climate change, or the danger it poses to us all.

    "I believe the results from studies on both sides of the debate provide important information..."

    Again, an assertion unsupported by evidence. What studies have 'the other side' originated that contain valid science, and why does this science (if it exists) place it on the 'other side' of the debate?


    "...if science continues to be portrayed in the current manner within the debate, society’s confidence in the discipline of science will be severely weakened".

    I agree, but your concern seems ironic given the way you have portrayed climate science as being selective, biased and adversarial. I don't think you're helping, frankly.

    "...What I am criticizing is how AGW is considered FACT. The science does show overwhelming evidence that AGW is occurring and that it is the most probable cause of accelerated climate change. However, this does not mean that this is actually the case."

    I regret that, once more, you employ a common myth as the premise of your argument. Who, exactly, consider AGW to be 'fact'? No scientist worth his weight in litmus paper would make such a foolish statement, since there are no facts at all in science (except in those branches where mathematical proofs can be employed). What science deals with are probabilities, and the reason most of us think 'the science is settled' is not because it has passed into some realm of factuality, but because the probabilities are now so overwhelming, the consilience between disciplines so consistent, the body of empirical evidence so strong and growing continually, and because there are no other theories whatever that can withstand even the most basic scrutiny - again, I refer you to the work of this site as demonstration of the hundreds of flawed attempts to concoct a hypothesis that points the responsibility for climate change in some direction other than human agency. In the decades leading up to the shocking loss of Arctic ice this year, virtually no science - none at all - has lowered the probability of human agency, nor reduced the potential for egregious damage.

    It is easy to make accusations, to offer opinions that are dressed as facts, and to speak to motive. If your concerns are genuine, I would ask you to consider that perhaps your own arguments speak to confirmation bias that you have not yet identified, and the premises of them are vague, without merit or supporting evidence. In isolation, I'm sure that the problems you describe have occurred, and will do so again. But the sweep of research is so vast, and the results so keenly examined, I believe that your concerns do not reflect the actuality of climate science, but something more personal.
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  26. I guess the most obvious question to ask is; in the light of JC's 'debunking recommendations', how would we change the responses to 'the most common climate myths', which are the core of this website, to make them more effective?

    Clearly -- as so often becomes clear -- providing the scientific facts is not enough to convince many people, as there are so many other psychological processes going on in their minds which distort the facts by overlaying them with other beliefs and agenda.

    * * *

    With regard to SA Dean's need for absolute proof of both the science and outcome of AGW, I offer an analogy which I have used with some success in discussions.

    Anyone who proposed to walk across a 6-lane highway in the rush hour for a bet, might want to first work out the chances of their being killed. If a scientist was asked to compute the odds, he'd need to know what traffic-avoiding tactics the walker might employ; the walk speed, the width of carriage way, the number and type of vehicles passing, the type of road surface and the weather conditions. Then he'd build a model and run it many times before being able to provide an estimate of the chance of survival. Could he ever say for certain? No, he couldn't. He could never say for a 'FACT' (SA Dean) that the walker would or wouldn't be killed. Could he say with enough accuracy to offer advice? Damn right. So is it worth taking the chance? Well depending on the size of the bet and how much the walker values their life, it might be. But that's the walker's decision, for him alone and not on behalf of other people.

    So that's why when it comes to making policy decisions, the scientific process -- however rigorous -- might not be able to give us the unequivocal answers some people would like. We shouldn't expect them to. But when scientists working in specific area of climate change say, "we're deeply concerned by what our work shows...", it would be wise to take them very seriously.
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  27. Here's an alternative analogy:

    Suppose there is an asteroid on collision course with Earth.

    When it is first spotted, the uncertainty in the observations is such that the scientists only give a 1% chance of it hitting Earth.
    Next year it is up to 10%. Next year 50%, then 90%, then 99%, then 99.99%.

    At what point do you mobilize the global economy to act? How is the decision influenced by the fact that the cost of action increases massively the longer you wait.
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  28. With just two posts SA Dean managed to achieve the purpose he intended, namely to reinforce myths and derail the thread.
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  29. Jim Eager@28, I respectfully disagree: "Derailing the thread' would look like us "alarmists," or 'adherents to the AGW theory' (take your pick) being at each other's cyberthroats, and we all would be *not* consilient with all we all had postulated before, on the many 1000s of links on SkS.

    Quite the contrary, IMHO: We have taken SA Dean's postulates, dissected them, exposed them to rational and measured discussion, compared and contrasted them to science, and found SA's conclusions.... to be wanting.

    THAT is the essence of a successful discussion, n'est pas? From this discussion I've taken away a deeper, finer-grained set of ideas, of ways to counter the same old tripe, just posted in a way that kinda *looks* like agreement with AGW, but is really just another 'lukewarmer' meme.

    To me, as a working scientist, that yet *another* shining example of precisely what and why SkS is here for....bravo to all!

    I should be remiss if did not offer a small thanks to SA Dean, for coming in and doing a drive-by...


    ...crickets.


    >;-D
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  30. @S A Dean, #8, from 13th October, with apologies if this ground has already been covered ... Regarding:

    "The take home message from this book is that complex systems cannot be studied using the traditional analytical method (breaking the system up into component parts to study) because it neglects the nearly infinite, dynamical, non-linear interactions with other components of the system. Cilliers mentions many other characteristics for a complex system such as uncertainty, feedback loops, open systems that cause boundary problems etc."

    Complexity of any system does not permit it to violate basic physical law. For a simple example, if a boundary is drawn around such a system, and all energy and mass flows are accounted for crossing that boundary, then Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy still applies, irrespective of its complexity. Similarly, any of the conservation principles from Classical Mechanics.

    More complicated rules naturally apply in thermodynamics, but they are nonetheless very sound.

    What these principles do is allow the calculation of basic physical quantities without having to, e.g., do an ab initio simulation of the system having the physical quantities. That is what gives them such power.

    "By its very nature, it is impossible to definitively understand the entire workings of the system with certainty. However, science provides humanity with the best possible obtainable knowledge about the system. But it is not perfect. We have seen time and time again how theories that were once considered fact were shown to be erroneous as new scientific information came to light. Look at the history of the atom."

    There's an equivocation here. That it is not possible to, for example, predict the future state of a complicated, tightly coupled system like Earth with great certainty in 100 years says nothing about the amount of understanding available for any part of it. Indeed, if we take almost any small part of Earth, a part small enough to be subjected to experiment, we already know a great deal about it, and could do excellent prediction for that part. In fact, we know far more about that small part than we need to know to say with 100% certainty that, in the limit, with continued introduction of carbon dioxide at the rate people are producing, human civilization is facing an existential threat. It is in fact the carbon dioxide that is causing that, with 100% certainty. And if that is not the case, then a great deal of the physical science which works so well in other engineering areas, whether solid state or physical biological, is magically wrong here. That's just not possible, because our experiments would fail. So I do claim "AGW is fact" and S A Dean hasn't a tarsus to stand on.

    What cannot be predicted with certainty is how fast these changes will come, what exactly they will be, or how they will affect any given region on Earth. That is partly a modeling problem, partly a computational problem, and partly a prediction problem.

    It is partly a modeling problem because the resources needed to build good models of, say, the interactions between large ice masses and atmospheres, or to understand the detailed dynamics of large ice masses have not been invested. But wheter or not we understand how the interior of ice masses will evolve, in detail, or how long it will take we know what will happen to them if we keep increasing atmospheric energy density.

    It is partly a computational problem because the resources have not been invested in building and learning how to build the enormous numerical simulations such a good prediction will need. We are making progress. We have good concurrent systems for doing these calculations. But there's a lot more to learn about how to do these calculations well at this scale.

    Finally, this is a prediction problem because making predictions and calculating credible intervals demands good constraints on initial and boundary conditions of the system being simulated, and these require good, comprehensive, synchronized measurements. These are much better than they were, but when a simulation is run, it is begun with an initialization which is approximately like the actual system, not exactly like the actual system, even if the model were perfect. The investments have not been made in the observational system needed to make such synchronized measurements.

    I argue that the problem has nothing to do with the science of the question. The problem has to do with out miserable economic systems, these being miserable because they are unpredictable, unsteerable, and no one appears to agree what they are, or where they should be.

    So, it seems to me and always has seemed, that anyone who really wants an improvement to the certainty of the prediction offered by scientific models and the detailed timeline really has an obligation to pony-up the resources needed to do so. If they don't, they really do not care about the answer, and so are being disingenuous, or they are ignorant, or they are taking the position "We're falling. Don't look down."

    Which is it, S A Dean?
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  31. @ Keven C, #19, 13 October. Very very nice.
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  32. Sorry, "Kevin C".
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  33. SA Dean mentions one of the standard denialist obfuscations - that the Earth's systems are too complex to understand which lets them jump to the false conclusion that we cannot know what will happen if we alter the balance of atmospheric gases by injecting extra greenhouse gases. Very simply, we don't need to understand every element of the complexity at all to figure out what will happen - that is a complete red herring.

    What we need to know is this. Does CO2 have a greenhouse gas effect? (this is certain). Have we/are we still increasing it? (this is certain). Is our increasing the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases causing the planet to heat up to a new equilibrium temperature? (this is certain). How much will Earth heat up? (this is less certain).

    Only on the very last point is there any legitimate scientific debate at all and most of it concludes that we have a sensitivity of 3 deg C per doubling of CO2. A very small minority of credible scientists (Lindzen, Christy Spencer etc) claim the sensitivity is 1 deg or less per doubling but outside of the science arena this is not relevant to what politicians should be doing.

    With the certainties known (as above) and the probabilities about which there is some small debate, what politicians need to think about urgently is risk assessment. If sensitivity is 3 deg, then certainly the greenhouse gases we have put up/are still putting up there will cause serious trouble that we won't be able to escape from for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. If sensitivity is a lot less, then nothing much will happen.

    It all comes down to taking a chance on what you believe if you are not completely up to date with the science which suggests that some feedbacks are much faster than were expected (ice/tundra melt).

    Faced with Dirty Harry's climate gun should any sane politician gamble that the sensitivity bullet left in his Magnum is a dud or not? Remembering that making the wrong choice can lead to a bad outcome for not only the individuals making the choice but also the rest of the 7 billion here, the political forces have to be asked - do you feel lucky, punks?
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  34. Nick, I think most denialists want an excuse to do nothing whether from distaste for environmentalists, Gore, taxes, international treaties etc. Anything half plausible will do to convince themselves.
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  35. John Cook:

    I think it would be a service to all if you collated a rendering of a few of the post in this thread for ease of copy/paste.
    This thread is not about the science, this thread is about the card game of communication and how certain words are dealt to further the gambit of obfuscations which in turn are played to win the hand of "reasonable skepticism". In particular, the articulate comments from gpwayne go a long way in addressing this style of discourse and how it is manipulated, either purposefully or through an inability to be clear and concise, in an effort to dissuade objective analysis in favor of accepting rhetorical flair.

    Addressing the style, syntax and vocabulary (the memed list of adjectival pejoratives) of denial would be a solid addition to your wonderful handbook.
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  36. Jim Eager (#28)
    "With just two posts SA Dean managed to achieve the purpose he intended, namely to reinforce myths and derail the thread".

    Can I suggest that it might be worth revisiting the article, and John's elaboration, of the subject, which is good communication? I made mention earlier of arguments that speak to motive. Here, you assign blame and motive to a poster whose motives you cannot know, and whose actions do not appear to me to merit condemnation.

    If we are to hope that reason will prevail, we surely have to adopt a simple maxim: that people like SA Dean are innocent until proven otherwise. I tried to adopt some of the methods discussed in John's book - respect for Mr. Dean's concerns in particular - while arguing that some of the premises he employed may be mistaken.

    Reason, where employed and respected by both parties in any discourse, should prevail. I would hope - reasonably - that Mr. Dean might think through his position. It's all I could ask. I don't expect anyone to change their mind just because I put a counter-position. The best I can hope for is reflection, introspection, and perhaps some modest revision if my arguments were presented well enough.

    And none of that would be possible if, instead, I just dumped SA Dean into a convenient bucket called 'denial', assigned him motives consistent with my own generalisation, and dismissed his concerns as disingenuous without having the slightest evidence to support my dismissal.

    We can judge, or we can debate from a position more humble, and I think more appropriate. As angry as denialists make me, if I continuously frame the debate in their terms, I am conceding my rationality to their lack of it. Deniers will dismiss me, what I say, and the science I find credible, simply because they believe I'm a 'warmist', 'alarmist', or have an agenda - their arguments nearly always speak to motive, and not science (since they don't have any).

    Surely we should not seek to emulate them?
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  37. There is an interesting Scientific American article that seems to help explain why people believe misinformation even in the face of overwhelming data to the contrary. The article is called Diss Information: Is There a Way to Stop Popular Falsehoods from Morphing into "Facts"? . It turns out that correcting misinformation can inadvertently strengthen it. I'm facing an uphill battle in getting a single AGW denier to accept anything but AGW denier misinformation. It's just frustrating...and not worth the effort I put into it.
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  38. Vrooomie and gpwayne, if you were looking for practice at trying out John's techniques, then SA Dean did give you that opportunity. But although Mr. Dean did gussy up the standard run of the mill "sceptic" arguments and deliver them politely, they were obviously still just that from the outset.
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  39. There's a good article by Dan Kahan on the science communication problem, in which he identifies what he thinks is the best explanation (identity-protective cognition); what he thinks are bad ones (including misinformation); and what he sees as a fitting solution (separating scientific facts from cultural values).

    "Identity-protective cognition" means "the tendency of individuals to form perceptions of fact that promote their connection to, and standing in, important groups". In other words, motivated reasoning and information filters are employed to protect and enhance somebody's standing within their social group.

    Kahan sees misinformation as a symptom, not a cause of the disease. Perhaps this explains why dealing with climate denialism is so frustrating. We are carefully lancing one misinformation boil at a time, even as others rapidly pop up due to the underlying and untreated socially-driven staph infection that is actually causing these eruptions.

    Kahan suggests that the fitting solution is to separate scientific facts from cultural meanings. This would make the facts more palatable since the bitter taste of potential social-identity challenges would be less obvious.

    Many people here, me included, have criticized scientists for not speaking out more strongly on the policy implications of their work. But, if Kahan is right, the more politically reticent scientists may actually be the more effective communicators and the more activist scientists, like James Hansen, may be doing more harm than good when it comes to changing people's minds.
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