When to doubt a doubt

[editor's note: an initial name confusion had the orignal version of this article referring to Jay Rogers instead of the actual author of the AEI piece Jay Richards. This has been fixed and as well a no longer relevant paragraph has been removed. Apologies for any confusion.]

[Preliminary Note: Coby asked me to edit this essay for a guest post on "A Few Things Ill Considered" (AFTIC). The original post is here, but this version cleans up the salty language (I'm kind of a roughneck and freely curse on this forum) and polishes up the content and provides the links to the relevant source materials. Coby thought it pertinent and worth additional publication, so with the editing and content assistance of another regular contributor to AFTIC (identified as "mandas" on his posts), I have altered it into its current form. Any editing or factual errors are mine alone, and I would appreciate being told if anyone notices any so that I can rectify them where necessary.]

One of the most prolific contributors to this forum, an anthropogenic global warming (AGW) skeptic who goes by the moniker Crakar, suggested that we examine an essay posted at the website of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) titled "When to Doubt a Scientific 'Consensus'". I have often thrown Crakar the backhanded compliment that without him the AGW proponents who contribute to this forum would be at a loss to know what the other side was up to, and in the spirit of fair play, I dutifully read it. In the essay, author Jay Richards argues that the consensus on AGW meets a number of criteria that make it questionable.

Richards sets the stage to his thesis by reminding us early on that:

Anyone who has studied the history of science knows that scientists are not immune to the non - rational dynamics of the herd.

We want to know whether a scientific consensus is based on solid evidence and sound reasoning, or social pressure and groupthink.

So the agenda is clear: He knows there are claims of a "consensus" that is hostile to his ideology (AEI is a prominent conservative think tank, promoting free-market, small-government solutions to most social problems), so he is going to mine for reasons why we should doubt it.

But before I proceed with my critique, I will quote one more of his early statements on which Richards and I completely agree:

We shouldn't, of course, forget the other side of the coin. There are always cranks and conspiracy theorists . . . So what's a non-scientist citizen, without the time to study the scientific details, to do?

That is, indeed, the money question, because as a non-expert, I too have to decide whether I believe there is a consensus on AGW and whether I should accept it. Richards then lists the things to look for in a reject-able consensus, and why AGW meets these criteria. Its a case study in what I call "dogma propping", where a non-expert with a predetermined ideological end loses all capacity to discern (1) fallacy from reason and (2) support for his position from refutation of it. I will now list and respond to every one of Richards' points, in the order he made them in his essay. His points and other commentary are italicized. My responses are in standard font.

According to Jay Richards, we should doubt a scientific consensus when . . .

(1) When different claims get bundled together.
. . . There's a lot more agreement about (1) a modest warming trend since about 1850 than there is about (2) the cause of that trend. There's even less agreement about (3) the dangers of that trend, or of (4) what to do about it. But these four propositions are frequently bundled together, so that if you doubt one, you're labeled a climate change "skeptic" or "denier . . . ".

Straw man.
You're labeled a crank if you doubt the consensus on the first two propositions above - whether there has been recent warming and whether it is anthropogenic - which is exactly what Richards implicitly did when he linked earlier in the essay to a superficial editorial about "climategate" by James Delingpole from the Telegraph, who is identified as "a journalist and broadcaster who is right about everything." (So much for not being dogmatic.) But Delingpole has obviously read and understood little, and is right about less. He simply recites secondhand the ubiquitously abused East Anglia University Climate Research Unit emails in which expressions like "the nature trick", "hide the decline", and Trenberth's, "travesty", have been tortured utterly out of context, as well as the distorted non-issue of data deletion - all things that have been rehashed on this forum ad nauseum, on top of subjects completely irrelevant to the question of the science of AGW, including some of the emails gloating about John S. Daly's death or wanting to "kick the crap out of" Pat Michaels, or the venting at the editorial review breakdown at Climate Research.

And as we will see, there is far more agreement about propositions (1) and (2) above than Richards cares to admit, but the early reference to the faux "climategate" scandal shows that this essay's principle purpose is to incite the fervor of the already committed - not make a rational case for doubting a consensus.

(2) When ad hominem attacks against dissenters predominate.
. . .When it comes to climate change, ad hominems are all but ubiquitous. They are even smuggled into the way the debate is described. The common label "denier" is one example.

Completely naked, unsubstantiated assertion, and another straw man:
"Just trust me on this; those AGW zealots use of a lot of personal attacks! Makes ya think, huh?"
Furthermore, it's the other way around: The consensus leads to frustration at the dissenters and thus the attacks; the attacks aren't used to bolster the consensus. Climate scientists did not reason, "Steve McIntyre is a pseudo-scientific hack, therefore AGW is true." The theory is based on a mountain of observational evidence and a basic physical principle that has been understood for over a century. Its because of that scientific evidence that pompous skeptics drive scientists nuts, often eliciting the personal attacks. I can attest that at times on AFTIC that some of the arguments from AGW skeptics are so absurd that I also sometimes find myself wishing I could extend electronic arms through cyberspace to throttle them. But my immaturity has no bearing on the science of the debate.

(3) When scientists are pressured to toe the party line.
" . . .Tenure, job promotions, government grants, media accolades, social respectability, Wikipedia entries, and vanity can do what gulags do, only more subtly . . . Climategate, and the dishonorable response to its revelations by some official scientific bodies, show that scientists are under pressure to toe the orthodox party line on climate change, and receive many benefits for doing so. That's another reason for suspicion."

This after having previously linked to a writer who doesn't even understand what "nature trick" and "hide the decline" refer to, or that CRU scientists' ire at the journal Climate Research was based on their dismay at what they perceived to be its lowbrow publication record. It was not an effort to suppress contrary evidence. As I argued above, Richards mistakes the rage that all of us feel when someone tries to promote BS as credible as "suppression of dissent".

(4) When publishing and peer review in the discipline is cliquish.
. . .Nerds who follow the climate debate blogosphere have known for years about the cliquish nature of publishing and peer review in climate science (see here, for example).

He then links to Edward Wegman's testimony before the US Congress regarding the original methodological drawbacks of Mann's '98 "hockey stick" temperature reconstruction and how the "cliquish" nature of Mann's peer review network led to this error. This is a true eye-roller, but we will never hear the end of the "hockey stick" straw man as long as AGW deniers, looking for an intellectual shortcut to their denial, regard attacking the "stick clique" as a decapitation strike against the global warming consensus. We all know the dispute: Can we use the available proxy data to verify that the 1990s were the hottest decade on record since the "Medieval Warm Period"/last 2,000 years/[insert comparison time period of preference here].

On this forum we've beaten each other half to death with the stick controversy of course, but the science of global warming is far beyond the historic temperature reconstructions. It based on a basic principle of physics, recent observational data, and an improving understanding of the role of the complex factors affecting global average temperatures. There are literally thousands of scientists involved, and as Doran and Zimmerman (2009) [PDF] showed, the overwhelming majority (including 97 percent of those specializing in climate research) of those responding to their survey agreed on the answers to Richards' propositions (1) and (2) above - that recent, post-industrial warming is significantly caused by human emissions.

(5) When dissenting opinions are excluded from the relevant peer-reviewed literature not because of weak evidence or bad arguments but as part of a strategy to marginalize dissent.

Richards then links to (my God) Climateaudit, in which Steve McIntyre (that unbiased font of "proof") claims to demonstrate that Ross McKitrick and Patrick J. Michaels' (2004), (MM04) in which they argued that temperature records have been compromised by industrial activity, were victims of suppression by the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report working group as per this hacked CRU email written by Phil Jones:

The other paper by MM is just garbage, I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin [Trenberth] and I will keep them out somehow - even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!

McIntyre's ability to clumsily cite things that don't even prove his own point - and then get cited by someone like Richards who assumes pro forma that McIntyre has done the work for him - will never cease to amaze me. Trenberth and Jones were not threatening to suppress "dissent", but what they regarded as "garbage". If Jones had written, "Oh no! They've got our number. If we let this get out our game is up!" then we could talk about suppression.

Besides, MM04 was not suppressed from the IPCC report, as McIntyre himself points out. It was mentioned in AR4, according to McIntyre, "grudgingly" and with "a dismissive editorial comment that was not supported by any reference to peer reviewed literature . . . ". His support of this statement? A personal communication he had with Ross McKitrick.

But for a dogmatic AGW denier like Richards , the speculations of any crank with a website and an agenda is accepted as credible as long as he says what Richards wants to believe.

(6) When the actual peer-reviewed literature is misrepresented.
In Science, Naomi Oreskes even produced a "study" of the relevant literature supposedly showing "The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change." In fact, there are plenty of dissenting papers in the literature . . .

This was the turning point when I realized that it was utter amateur hour. Richards links to Oreskes's finding that nothing in the peer reviewed literature up to that point (2004) disputed the fundamental finding of the IPCC that:

"Human activities ... are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents ... that absorb or scatter radiant energy. ... [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations."

At least he linked a primary source (Oreske), but to prove "there is plenty of dissent" Richards, either by incompetence or design, conflates "dissent" over AGW specifics with "dissent" over AGW fundamentals, and uses an abominably weak list of literature to prove his schizophrenic point. Of the 10 examples Richards' link gives, six - one of which is not peer reviewed - dispute only the magnitude of CO2 forcing (owing to negative feedbacks or other mechanisms), three only dispute the imminence of zero summer arctic ice extent (and are derived from news stories or agency reports, not peer reviewed literature), and one - the now famous McClean, de Frietas and Carter (2009) article from the Journal of Geophysical Research, in which the authors argue that climate change is driven primarily by El Nino and Southern Oscillation cycles, has been criticized for having used a methodology that would have eliminated any anthropogenic signal anyway. I can't claim to be able to disprove that article (again, I am not an expert), but I need a preponderance of real dissent, not magazine articles and research questioning only the magnitude of CO2 forcing, for me to doubt the fundamental premise of AGW.

Richards did what I have seen AGW deniers do constantly - cite something that does not even help their case. Its doubtful he even read his own link. This again is the narrative of the dogmatically committed. And it shows up repeatedly when you debate with deniers.

(7) When consensus is declared hurriedly or before it even exists.

Just when I thought I'd seen the worst, Richards produces this tinder-stuffed, gasoline-soaked straw man. Richards quotes Al Gore as declaring the debate about AGW over in 1992, despite polls showing caution within the scientific community, and then renewing his declaration of consensus in 2009.

This argument is so incoherent and self-defeating I initially struggled with how to even respond to it. Suppose your opponent in a tennis match suddenly screamed, "I am compost!", and then inserted his racquet handle in his rectum right as you served? Exactly. I wouldn't know what to do either. And this is the disbelief I struggled with when I read Richards' argument. Richards on the one hand tells us that Al Gore "declared hurriedly" a consensus, but the scientific basis for this declaration did not exist. So, the scientific "consensus" was not "hurriedly" declared! What the hell does it matter what Al Gore says? But attacking Al Gore is a favored tactic among dogmatic AGW disbelievers looking, again, for a decapitation strike against AGW. Bashing Gore is resonant with deniers, and Richards is preaching to an entranced choir. I was honestly embarrassed for Richards at this point.

(8) When the subject matter seems, by its nature, to resist consensus.

. . .in fact, if there really were a consensus on all the various claims surrounding climate science, that would be really suspicious. A fortiori, the claim of consensus is a bit suspicious as well.

The straw men are breeding and multiplying with the straw women.

The "consensus" is on Richards' first two assertions listed above: (1) - the reality of warming and (2) - the anthropogenic nature of this warming. As Oreskes says in her summary of the literature (had Richards read his own link):

The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility . . . Many details about climate interactions are not well understood, and there are ample grounds for continued research to provide a better basis for understanding climate dynamics. The question of what to do about climate change is also still open. But there is a scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Climate scientists have repeatedly tried to make this clear . . . .

But people like Richards simply pay no attention - even when the very sources they cite make it crystal clear.

(9) When "scientists say" or "science says" is a common locution.

This particular straw man is the dimwit half-brother of the one used in point (8). By this tortured logic you could never make any scientific claim. Scientists say the earth is round and revolves around the sun. Scientists say that dogs are genetically descended from wolves. Scientists say it requires an X and Y chromosome to make a boy. By Richards' reasoning, all these propositions are in doubt because "Scientists say" they are true. And it highlights the incredible mental gymnastics that politically motivated AGW deniers have to employ. Because a scientific consensus implies policy recommendations they don't like, they need to concoct a reason to disbelieve it - right to the point of saying, "If people say scientists say something, that's your cue to plug your ears and disbelieve it."

(10) When it is being used to justify dramatic political or economic policies.

This is the tired, paranoid argument that AGW is just a pretext to turn us all into socialists.

I would be bored with this asinine line of reasoning if were not such a potent narrative animating AGW denial. Thinking themselves the defenders of freedom and productivity, AGW deniers have it lodged in their heads that their resistance to acting against climate change is a noble struggle against Big Government and environmental "religious zealots". Richards shudders at the " . . . strange philosophical and metaphysical activism" and "the megaphones of consensus" typified in Cophenagen. Its the classic denier conflation: If you don't like the science, find a zealot who agrees with it and claim you're just resisting the zealotry - not the science.

The conclusions of science are what they are. The motives and tactics of those who cite the science for whatever reason has no bearing on its truth or falsity. This is something that deniers like AGW Richards either cannot or will not understand.

(11) When the "consensus" is maintained by an army of water-carrying journalists who defend it with uncritical and partisan zeal, and seem intent on helping certain scientists with their messaging rather than reporting on the field as objectively as possible.

Do I really need to elaborate on this point?

Preaching purely unsubstantiated balderdash to the predisposed choir: "The goddamn liberal media is on board, and we all know how full of crap they are!"

I study the media as part of my teaching and research agenda, and while media coverage of AGW is not my specialty, I challenge anyone to debate me - in writing, on this forum - to show me how "mainstream" media outlets have distorted the global warming issue. If anything, it's the opposite: right-wing outlets like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh latch onto the exact same absurdities that Richards does and disseminate them to their gullible audiences that are as eager to ignore climate change as Richards is.

(12) When we keep being told that there's a scientific consensus.

A scientific consensus should be based on scientific evidence. But a consensus is not itself the evidence. And with really well-established scientific theories, you never hear about consensus. No one talks about the consensus that the planets orbit the sun, that the hydrogen molecule is lighter than the oxygen molecule, that salt is sodium chloride, that light travels about 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum, that bacteria sometimes cause illness, or that blood carries oxygen to our organs. The very fact that we hear so much about a consensus on catastrophic, human-induced climate change is perhaps enough by itself to justify suspicion.

This near-final paragraph captured so much absurdity and narrow-mindedness in one concentration that I had to quote it in its entirety. The reason no one hears about the "consensus" of the speed of light is (1) it is, unlike climate, an easy thing to establish with scientific certainty; (2) there is nothing at stake. The reason you hear reference to the "scientific consensus" on AGW is that those of us who want to act to hedge against the risks of climate change are clashing with powerful vested ideological and comercial forces resisting such action. We keep pointing out the "consensus" because that's the reason to act. But Richards would pervert the mentioning of consensus as proof of its nonexistence: "Hmm. Talking about a 'con-SEN-sus', eh? Ha! You said the C-word! You said the C-word! Neeener neener neener . . .you said the C-word!"

[At this point, the initial version of this post included a reference to one "Jay Rogers", whom my contributor errantly conflated with the author of the essay by "Jay Richards". My contributor acknowledges the error but stands by the critique of Richards' essay published at AEI.]

It is no coincidence that the ideologues at the American Enterprise Institute would endorse and publish Richards' fallacy-riddled screed. Commentaries like his provide intellectual shorthand for dogmatic deniers who want to comfort themselves with the delusion that climate scientists are some sort of hokey farce, like members of a religious sect peddling doorstep salvation. Like Crakar had done before he provided the link to Richards' essay, most AGW deniers will merely skim it and feel vindicated in their denial. There is no doubt a "consensus" among its ill-informed readers that Richards' nonsense constitutes sound argument. And that is a truly depressing commentary on the quality of popular discourse on this crucial environmental issue and the prospect for motivating large-scale action to address it.


More like this

There's only one legitimate reason to doubt a scientific consensus: When evidence arises that is at odds with said consensus, and is also superior to the body of evidence that was used to arrive at the consensus.

All the other reasons are irrelevant nonsense.

Anyone who has studied the history of science knows that scientists are not immune to the non - rational dynamics of the herd.

We want to know whether a scientific consensus is based on solid evidence and sound reasoning, or social pressure and groupthink.

How many irony meters has this statement from the Brotherhood of the Invisible Hand AEI broken?

By natural cynic (not verified) on 06 Apr 2010 #permalink

There is another excellent dissertation on how to recognise denialism and what to do about it here:


I challenge anyone to read it and not instantly recognise some of the characteristics and tactics of some well known posters here.

Well, it's been a week now & still no response from crakar... d'you think (s)he's OK?

I really don't know how to interpret this.

He's never shied from a fight before.

I've emailed him privately a couple of times but no response . . . so maybe he just needs some space.

Maybe he has had an epithany and is too embarassed to show his face and admit he was wrong.

Eh, maybe.

But I don't think Crakar feels embarrassment in the sense most of us do. (E.g., the Oh-shit-I-just-made-a-dill-weed-statement, run-of-the-mill embarrassment that would make most of us blush.)

Stay tuned . . .

Brilliant post. However, as a former Arts graduate - yes there are those of us who are interested in science - I find most of these arguments dressed up post-modernism.

Epistemological relativism is the choice of most anti-science movements when they believe the science conflicts with their world view.

It's deconstructionism/PoMo/Post-structuralism for the right wing crowd.

We need a Sokal to "punk" them by submitting utter garbage (i.e. a flawed piece of research that supports their world view) to one of their esteemed journals and watch them fawn over it.

@watching the deniers:
But there are so many Sokals already? I mean, take E.G. Beck's CO2 stuff in E&E. Or David Archibald's sun-climate stuff, also in E&E.

Of course, they don't realise they are Sokals...