"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Saturday, October 13, 2007

History of AGW Consensus by Mashey

In a comment on another thread, John Mashey offers a detailed and interesting view of the history of the AGW consensus that I thought deserves highlighting.


1) A general process and chronology covers a number of cases (not all), so I'll do that first, and then answer the specific question about consensus in global warming.
  • a) First, nobody really knows.
  • b) People start doing serious studies, and they don't all agree, but evidence starts to pile up around some hypothesis on its way to being a theory.
  • c) As elements of a hypothesis get established, people stop arguing about them, but argue about other elements.
  • d) At some point, some things are so well-accepted that almost no one doing serious research and doing peer-reviewed publication argues with it. I say almost no one, because there are always a few dissenters, sometimes even quite distinguished ones.
But at that point, the consensus is as strong as it ever gets in science, and of course, by then it's wired into textbooks with few if any caveats. Researchers don't normally run around proclaiming consensus all over the place, because by the time it is a consensus, it's obvious, so who cares? Only if new data appears that truly contradicts the consensus does anyone get excited - of course, overturning a consensus with a new hypothesis that gets confirmed ... is a giant win for a scientist.

Well, that applies to most scientific arguments ... EXCEPT:

2) Sometimes people find the resulting consensus undesirable for extra-science reasons:
  • a) religious
  • b) economic
  • c) ideological/political
  • or combinations.
and in this case, a common strategy is to say: "there's still a lot of argument" or "teach the controversy", and these have tended to use the small number of scientists who dissent plus a lot of PR, not to change the science, but to create doubt in the public.

For example:
  • - Evolution vs creationism/intelligent design, going on for a long time. (a)
  • - Medical science versus smoking and then second round, secondhand smoke. (b) If you can find Allan M. Brandt's "The Cigarette Century" you can learn all about the tactics used to obfuscate the science, and it's the best case, because unlike almost any other case, there is this huge database of public records of internal documents.
PR agencies honed tactics including use of the few dissenting scientists, creation of captive scientific-sounding front organizations (like TIRC, or later, TASSC - The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition), creating doubt, etc.
(As an example of a dissenter, the great statistician Sir Ronald Fisher disbelieved the smoking-disease linkage right up to his death in 1962, long after there was very powerful evidence.)

A bunch of thinktanks came into existence, learned the skills with tobacco, and then applied them later to:
  • - ozone depletion vs CFCs (b,(c))
  • - other environmental regulations vs business interests (b, (c))
and of course,
  • - global warming vs fossil fuel (b, (c)
The (b, (c)) means that the primary impetus and funding tends to be (b), but there is often an ideological connection (c), which for these cases tends to have certain sorts of current-conservative and/or extreme libertarian leanings. I.e., this is not isomorphic with the Republican Party, but tends to be closely tied there at the moment.
Some of this dates to Frank Luntz, an influential pollster: see Wikipedia entry and the parts of LuntzSpeak, especially:

Hence there is: George C. Marshall Institute, SEPP, CEI, AEI, Heartland, Frontiers of Freedom, SPPI, Fraser Institute (Canada), (and more) mostly in USA, and concentrated around Washington, DC, and with a lot of overlapping participants, often with funding from tobacco companies, very-conservative foundations, ExxonMobil, and coal companies.

3) In any of these, we get into a state where the scientists think there is a strong consensus about something, and will say so if asked, but are working on areas that are in doubt. Papers do not waste words reaffirming the consensus, i.e., very few biologists waste words confirming evolution.

However, the other side constantly attacks the consensus, trying to sow doubt among the public, "teach the controversy" etc. Fighting with this is generally a thankless task for most scientists, as Michael says.

Note that this very different from a real scientific argument, like the multiple-decades-long fight over continental drift, or the shorter fight over the causes of ulcers.

When somebody says there is a consensus, it's not usually that they're trying to close off scientific debate or win an argument, it's just an observation of fact, as seen in the rear-view mirror! Scientists I've talked with (a lot, over 40 years, on many different topics) usually calibrate what they say with uncertainty levels.

Sometimes, the obfuscation strategy backfires into a court case like "Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District", which is one the Discovery Institute did not want to fight, and in which the dissenter witnesses, under oath, got slaughtered in court in front of a conservative, but honest judge John Jones III.

4) AGW consensus.

Assuming this means: "The recent (say since 1975) rise in temperatures is mostly caused by humans, especially by adding GHGs to the atmosphere." I think that has actually been mostly in place (scientifically) before 1990, although as always, people argue about the details.

REPUBLICAN President George H. W. Bush said, in:
"President Bush announced today that the United States has agreed with other industrialized nations that stabilization of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions should be achieved as soon as possible." that was 1989.

The more it looked like people might actually do something to conserve fossil-fuels, and the stronger the statements got by the IPCC, the louder the anti-AGW PR got, and for whatever reason, some parts of the Republican party took a distinct anti-science turn (see Chris Mooney's book "The Republican War on Science."

5) At the February 2004 AAAS meeting, the (prestigious) George Sarton Award lecture was "The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change: How Do We Know We're Not Wrong?" of which you can find a slightly-updated version at:

This was given by UCSD Professor Naomi Oreskes, who is a well-published, award-winning geoscientist and science historian, and it is well worth reading.

Naomi's original talk mentioned a quick experiment she had done, which was searching the ISI Web of Science for "global climate change" in papers published 1993-2003 and looking at abstracts and assessing them, expecting to see when and how the consensus got established, and was surprised to find that the consensus was already there.

However, this got a strong audience response, and she ended up doing a 1-page essay for Dec 2004 Science (which does not give out pages casually):

Bennie Peiser (a UK Social anthropologist!) wrote a letter to Science (not accepted) attacking these results, in 2005. It turned out that he simply lacked the expertise, and this was refuted, rather thoroughly.

The other side constantly raises doubts about the consensus, and often attacks Oreskes, sometimes quite personally via threatening letters.

The latest one is a bizarre combination of a Britsh Lord Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount of Brenchley, a London endocrinologist, Klaus-Martin Schulte, who wrote an article (not yet published) that tried to refute Oreskes and teh consensus again. Even without being published, it managed to generate:

Google: less than half published scientists endorse global warming
--> 700,000 hits

I.e., regardless of the truth, the desired publicity was accomplished, using a well-tuned PR machine centered in Washington, DC.

There also turned out to be plagiarism, threats of lawsuits, letters sent to Oreskes' Chancellor and then publicized via Business Wire, etc, etc.

So: there is a large machine crying "no consensus, there is doubt" which is perfectly happy to publicize
- an indirect reference to a paper by an endocrinologist
- who turns out to be fairly clueless about climate science,
- and whose paper couldn't even get published in the poorly-regarded journal to which it had been submitted.

This story is spread across various blogs, but some key ones are:


Note that the above, except for the italicized intro, was entirely written by John Mashey and not myself.

Update: It looks like it's time for John Mashey to get his own blog, since he has a lot of interesting things to say but says them on other people's blogs.


Michael Tobis said...

John, thank you!

Regarding the Google search item you have to put it in quotes; else you get more hits for

more than half of all published scientists endorse global warming theory


less than half of all published scientists endorse global warming theory

Nevertheless there are 9930 hits in the echo chamber for the thing properly submitted to Google, hits which are discouraging to say the least.

Anonymous said...

Yes, good point ... why I never worry too much about exact numbers. I didn't use the exact quote because I found a bunch of the titles varied, in particular a lot shortened the headline to
"less than half of published..." omittign the all.

Mostly, the educational thing is to type queries and look at a couple paes worth of hits to get a feel, since numbers alone don't tell much except the gross interest level.

Thanks for featuring the post!

Anonymous said...

Some subjects - and global warming is certainly one of them - are so complex and unknowable that it is absurd to take a position. There is simply too much data and too many arguments about it.

To then move on to arguing about how many of the thousands of scientific opinionators are in consensus about the hundreds of questions swirling in this unknowable subject is piling absurdity on top of absurdity.

Next no doubt will be the question of how many fools, journalists (do I repeat myself?) and pundits are in agreement on how many and what type of scientists are in agreement about which climate questions are significant.

Having an opinion about global warming is proof of foolishness. Claiming that there is a consensus (other than among journalists seeking attention through scariness) is proof of dishonesty.

Anonymous said...

I understand that you feel threatened by science, for whatever reason. Do you apply this same reasoning to everything else?

Do you have an opinion on smoking? The statistical evidence for the increase of disease from smoking is overpowering ...

but it is difficult or impossible to predict whether or when a specific person will get ill from it, and the exact chemical/biological mechanisms that link cigarette smoke to the diseases is still not understood for many of the 4000 chemical compounds there.

In climate change, most of the basic mechanisms are very well understood from physics and chemistry, and you don't even need much statistics to get the basics.

If you *really* believe what you said, you should stop using anything that you don't understand. The Old Order Amish have a reasonable lifestyle, eschewing complex things like tractors and electricity. You might find that more comfortable.

Anonymous said...

Some subjects - and global warming is certainly one of them - are so complex and unknowable that it is absurd to take a position. There is simply too much data and too many arguments about it.

Many subjects are complex, and until there is a way to organize the data it's almost impossible not to get overwhelmed by it.

Once you have a set of organizing principles, the data can be evaluated against their predictions and only the outliers need to be considered individually. Computers make this much easier than it was, say, 60 years ago.

Climate science remains very complex, however, and many of its practitioners (not including Michael), and their proffesional organizations, act more like a bunch of priests of a mystery religion than researchers whose work is open to examination and question.

In climate change, most of the basic mechanisms are very well understood from physics and chemistry, and you don't even need much statistics to get the basics.

Not true, IMO. Certain organizing principles regarding complexity itself are still being studied. The climate appears to be a chaotic system, and this puts severe limits on its predictability.

Unfortunately, the "concensus opinion" regarding CO2 and climate change was formed in the 80's and early 90's, evidently prior to general knowledge (among scientists) of the still-developing principles of non-linear dynamic systems.

The result, AFAIK, is that the concensus theories appear to completely ignore the fact that they are modeling a non-linear system. At least they lack, per Michael, one of what I consider the key markers of a complex non-linear system.

I am doubtful that it would be possible to model a complex non-linear system with a linear model, but if it is, it would certainly require the modelers to believe in "tipping points" and design their models to simulate the processes that could produce them.

IMO the only opinion worth forming at this point is that the "concensus" modelers don't understand their field. Am I being too harsh, Michael?

Michael Tobis said...

Yes, of course you're being too harsh, AK.

The idea that we are unaware that the climate system is nonlinear is just ridiculous. Let's start with the advective term in the Navier Stokes equations, shall we? That would bring us neatly back to, um, 1822.

You also might want to look up Ed Lorenz's role in the history of nonlinear dynamics.

As long as you're hanging around with scientific professionals, you really should be asking questions and not making sweeping generalizations.

Anonymous said...

OK, Sorry, I'll back off.

But I still don't understand why the consensus opinion is opposed to "tipping points". Did I mis-understand your statement?

Or is it political?

Michael Tobis said...

The computational models aren't very good at tipping points, as well as other high-impact low-probability phenomena for a couple of known reasons that are hard to summarize and possibly some unknown reasons as well.

That doesn't mean we don't believe in them at all. On the contrary it is a major topic, as are other sorts of nonlinear dynamics.

If you want to know what the physical science consensus says, read it. It's not a secret.

EliRabett said...

The old order Amish cheat. They ride in taxis, they use pay telephones at the end of their driveways. In short, they are practical folk

Barry said...

I don't care how great of a scientist you think you are, consensus means absolutely nothing in the realm of real science. How many times do "scientists" have to be proven wrong before they realize they aren't quite as smart as they like to assume. Oh wait don't answer, they never will because they always assume that somehow this generation is so much better and smarter than the generation before.

Now we think it ridiculous that anybody could believe that the earth is the center of the universe. Yet, for centuries it was enforced by consensus. So many times, those in the consensus have been proven wrong in the past, that anybody claiming victory by consensus should be thoroughly laughed at.

How long did those in the the consensus sneer at the idea of plate tectonics before the evidence proved the consensus wrong.

When I was a child I always misplaced items and then blamed my parents for taking or moving my stuff. As I grew up and realized that it was my fault most of the time I stopped blaming others for my mistakes.

Why can't those in the science community put childish behavior in the past along with the childish things we once believed about the earth. You all need to learn from your mistakes and stop committing the same ones over and over again.
Stop committing the mistake of creating consensuses. They do not help us to understand the science and instead often lead us away from the truth.

Michael Tobis said...

Re: the old "consensus" boogeyman:

It is interesting that your examples all constitute scientific consensus themselves. Indeed science proceeds by consensus.

See here, and if that isn't clear enough, see here.

If that doesn't convince you, you may have noticed that there is a purported scientific consensus about gravity, one that has in many respects changed very little since the idea was first proposed.

Suspicious, no? That shows this conspiratorial thinking runs far deeper within science than you might have thought. Please consult the flat earth literature for more details.

amoeba said...

As a mindless speck of protoplasm, I know my place in the scheme of things.

I respect and admire John Mashey, Michael Tobis, EliRabett, Tim Lambert, Naomi Oreskes and the guys on RC, as well as not forgetting the sterling work of all the scientists whose discoveries enable the technologists and engineers make the things that we all rely upon.

I detest those who peddle lies for the fossil-fuel industry.

As for the pompous Barry, I suspect he could do worse than learn some humility, read some real science [the proper peer-reviewed stuff that has been published in ISI Journals, not the pseudoscience from the Oregon Institute of Lies and Mendacity or published in OpEds in the WaPo etc.] so that he understands a microscopic fragment of a tiny part of what he is writing about.
Indeed, I suspect that it is Barry who isn't 'quite as smart he likes to assume'.
Barry might consider studying the Dunning-Kruger Effect. After that, I believe that if he has any shame, that he will remain silent, because he surely has much to be silent about.