The consensus was wrong

In an article in the Guardian, Richard Tol wrote that “There are plenty of examples in history where everyone agreed and everyone was wrong”. He didn’t give examples there – perhaps he thought this was so well known that it wasn’t worth commenting on, or perhaps space was too limited.

Here are a few examples of where the consensus has turned out to be wrong (thanks to @Fastcomm, @intrepidwanders, @DerrickByford, @nmrqip and @Beautyon for suggesting many of these). More examples welcome! 
Yes, I know, these stories are all greatly oversimplified.

Copernicus, Galileo and the Sun. For some time after Copernicus wrote his book saying that the Earth goes round the Sun, most scientists continued to believe the opposite.

Ernst Chladni and meteorites. The consensus was that meteorites came from the earth, perhaps from volcanoes, until, around 1800, some nutter suggested they might come from outer space.

Cholera and John Snow. The consensus was that cholera was caused by ‘miasma’ – bad air, until John Snow identified a link with a contaminated water pump in the 1850s.

Semmelweis, hand-washing and puerperal fever. His results were rejected because they conflicted with the consensus of scientific opinion.

Evolution. The consensus was that God created species in a few days. Darwin was so worried about the consequences of what he’d found that he sat on it for many years.

The Aether and the speed of light. It used to be thought that light travelled at a certain speed relative to a background known as ‘aether’. Experiments and then Einstein’s theory of relativity showed that this was wrong.

Wegener and continental drift. Wegener was attacked and ridiculed for this theory.

George Zweig and quarks. The consensus was that protons and neutrons were fundamental elementary particles until Zweig and Gell-Man came up with quarks.

Barry Marshall and stomach ulcers. The consensus was that gastritis and ulcers were related to poor diet and stress. in 1984, Marshall had to ingest the bacteria, helicobacter pylori, to show he was right that this was the cause, and eventually won the Nobel Prize.

Stanley Prusiner and prions The consensus was that disease agents needed nucleic acids. Prusiner’s theory of prions in the 1980s led to incredulity, personal attacks and then a Nobel Prize.

Barbara McClintlock and “jumping genes”. Another Nobel Prize winner whose work wasn’t accepted at first because it went against received wisdom.

Maybe all those people insisting on how important it is to convince the public that there’s a consensus on climate change need to take a basic course in the history of science.

And Then There’s Hypocrisy

Wouldn’t you hate people to think that your judgement of a piece of work is based largely on your biases, rather than a thoughtful analysis of the actual work?

This comment at Bishop Hill comes from the worthy scientist who at his own blog says-

On Rupert Darwall and Murry Salby:
“I haven’t read the article, but…”

On Roger Pielke and his critics:
“I haven’t read the paper, so…”

In fact, commenting on things he hasn’t read is a common theme throughout his blog.

He also has a post on “What works in science”, which includes reading papers as something that works.

(HT Harry Passfield at BH)

Fooling themselves

Adam Corner’s Talking Climate blog provides another example of the activist wing within social sciences fooling themselves.

Victoria Wibeck believes that there is a “persistent and problematic paradox”. Despite the overwhelming evidence for climate change and the high levels of concern people express, we still are not taking action on climate change. We are concerned about climate change, but not engaged. Previously I called this The Norgaard Delusion, after Kari Norgaard’s puzzlement over the fact that people said, when asked, that they were concerned about climate change, but didn’t talk about it all the time and continued their normal lives. The blog post goes on to consider “How can cli­mate change be made to feel mean­ingful in people’s everyday lives and how can they be encour­aged towards col­lective, affirm­ative action?”

Wibeck’s post provides a good example of confirmation bias – she selects survey results that tell the story she wants to tell, and ignores things that don’t. She cites a Special Eurobarometer survey that was all about climate change, to support her belief that climate change is a high priority (circular reasoning). If she had looked at the Standard Eurobarometer 80 survey she might have seen this:

And it’s a similar story in the US.

She also quotes from the “Climate Change in the American Mind” survey, picking out the third bullet point but ignoring the first one that says “There has been an increase in the proportion of Americans who believe global warming is not happening (23%, up 7 percentage points since April 2013)”.

There is no paradox. Wibeck and others in the groupthink-circle are fooling themselves. Time for another Feynman quote:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists.

Energy and Climate Change Committee report on IPCC AR5

The House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee has today published its report following their review into IPCC AR5 WG1.

A brief recap with links to earlier posts: the Committee is chaired by Tim Yeo (Con) who has been criticised for his green energy interests, was caught in a lobbying sting and has been de-selected by his local party. There are two openly climate-sceptical members, Peter Lilley (Con) and Graham Stringer (Lab). The inquiry was announced last November with a call for written submissions by December. The remit covered robustness, range of views, climate models, the pause, and policy. Over 50 written submissions were sent in, IPCC-supportive ones from institutions such as the Met Office and Royal Society and many critical ones from individuals (the allegedly influential GWPF did not make a submission). From January – March, three oral evidence sessions were held, the first of which featured three mainstream climate scientists followed by three sceptics. The second session had some interesting clashes between Yeo and Lilley. The third session included science advisors and members of DECC.

Given the disparity of opinion between Yeo and Lilley, it was hard to imagine how they could come up with a written report that both could put their names to. It turns out that they couldn’t.

The two sceptics on the committee, Lilley and Stringer, voted against the main report and issued their own short statement yesterday evening. They said that “The Summary for Policy Makers is far less balanced than the report it purports to summarise”, that it’s hard to justify the IPCC claim of increased confidence, given the current pause in warming and the fact that the IPCC is this time not able to give a best estimate of climate sensitivity. They also draw attention to recent lower estimates of climate sensitivty and the fact that climate models are too warm, before describing the IPCC SPM as “politicised”.

The main report, here in html or here in pdf, regurgitates the main conclusions of AR5 and issues a call to action (“must work to agree a binding global deal in 2015″) but also calls for a small team of non-climate scientists to oversee the process. This picks up on a suggestion by Ruth Dixon in her submission to the inquiry.

The rest of the report proceeds predictably. Climate scientists Peter Stott, Myles Allen and Brian Hoskins tell the committee that climate scientists aren’t biased. There are some comments about the increasing size of the IPCC reports and the long, slow timescale. There is more unquestioning regurgitation of the statements made by Stott, Hoskins and Shuckburgh. The pause in warming is claimed to be “consistent with earlier IPCC assessments”. There is a final section on domestic and international policy, issuing the call for “rapid, drastic action”.

The most spectacular piece of idiocy I’ve found so far is paragraph 50: “Subsequent evidence has confirmed that a number of witnesses supported the conclusions of the IPCC. For example, Dr Stott told us that…”. Peter Stott is coordinating Lead Author of Chapter 10 of the IPCC AR5 report. Myles Allen, also quoted at length, is also an author on the same chapter.

The dissent of Lilley and Stringer is noted at the end of the report, in the “Formal Minutes”, p 50-54. Stringer proposed an amendment to insert “We have received evidence which gives us cause for concern of chronic political and “activist” interference. The procedures to safeguard against this influence are either non-existent or ineffective.”

All in all, another rather pointless exercise in circular reasoning, confirmation bias and division (see previous post).

Articles elsewhere:

Matt McGrath for the BBC, MPs bicker over IPCC report on causes of climate change, discusses the main report and the dissenting views of Lilley and Stringer.

The Guardian, predictably, only presents one side of the story, IPCC climate change report’s findings must be accepted, MPs say

On twitter, climate scientist Mark Brandon sinks to a new low by saying that Lilley and Stringer are a bit like astrology-believing Tredinnick.

Bishop Hill describes the report as Climate’s parliamentary cheerleaders.

Carbon brief, UK Parliament says IPCC report is an “unambiguous picture of a climate that is being dangerously destabilised” claims that the report “deals with” the criticisms of the sceptics.

Judith Curry has a post Politicizing the IPCC Report, quoting a chunk of this post.

Lewis Page at The Register focuses on the qualifications with Just TWO climate committee MPs contradict IPCC: The two with SCIENCE degrees

“Conceptual Structure of Social Disputes” – worse than we thought

In the previous post I commented on a paper “The Conceptual Structure of Social Disputes”, by Thomas Homer-Dixon, Manjana Milkoreit, Steven J. Mock, Tobias Schröder and Paul Thagard. The paper claimed to present an understanding of climate skepticism (among other topics) but seemed instead to show the prejudiced and ill-informed view that is wide-spread among social scientists. One further misrepresentation and smear that I didn’t notice yesterday is the claim of “absence of concerns about environmental issues”, dropped into the paper with no evidence.

It turns out that things are worse than we thought. Yesterday I said that I had not had time to look at the Milkoreit thesis which apparently forms the basis for the statements in the paper and the CAM diagram. Here is what the paper says:

“The maps are derived from Milkoreit’s extensive research on attitudes toward climate change. Using a variety of primary text sources, including newspaper articles, blogs, and transcripts of speeches of presidential candidates, interview data collected in 2012, and secondary literature on the role of ideology, media, and business actors in climate politics, Milkoreit selected concepts and conceptual links that various authors or interview participants had used or referred to most frequently.”

Having looked at Milkoreit’s thesis, this statement seems to be untrue. CAMs are discussed in chapter 3, p77-158, and that chapter contains no mentions of newspapers or blogs. In fact newspapers and blogs are only mentioned once in the entire thesis, on p 224 in chapter 5 on the “Q” method (with no indication of which newspapers or blogs) and these were only used to formulate a questionnaire. Responders to this questionnaire were divided into 6 factor groups A-F, but none of these groups express skeptical views – they are all minor variations within the climate-concerned group. Appendix 5-2 gives the political views of the participants, which are quite illuminating:
28 Left/Liberal
1 Center
2 Right/Conservative.

In summary, the thesis of Milkoreit provides no evidence to support the claims made in the published paper or press release.

Update: The journal, Sage Open, allows reader comments on articles, so I have submitted a comment, here in pdf form.

What’s going on in the minds of social scientists?

A provocatively titled press release from the University of Waterloo, What’s going on inside the minds of climate change skeptics? has led to some discussion on twitter, so I am setting up a blog post to allow more detailed discussion (and returning the compliment).

The article is based on a paper The Conceptual Structure of Social Disputes which looks at four disputed areas, one of which is climate change. The paper produces “cognitive-affective maps” (CAMs) that are diagrams linking together positive (green), negative (red), ambivalent (purple) and neutral (yellow) thought processes. Here is the CAM for climate skeptics:

The obvious question is where does all this come from? Is there any data or evidence behind it? Does it really tell us anything about the thinking of climate skeptics, or is it telling us more about the thinking of social scientists? Apparently it comes from the PhD thesis of Manjana Milkoreit, but this has 469 pages so I haven’t quite finished reading it yet. One flaw, pointed out by Ronan Connolly, is that the paper twice describes the liberal person in favour of climate action as ‘well-informed’, with the implication that skeptics are not. In fact, Dan Kahan’s work has shown (see last graph here) that skeptics are just as knowledgeable about climate science. The failure of the paper to cite Kahan is quite remarkable given the close relevance of his work. Another criticism made is that it presents the issue as two distinct groups, without acknowledging the reality of a continuous spectrum of views. The paper simply declares that to a climate skeptic, “anthropogenic climate change is not real”. This unhelpful attitude contributes to polarisation and antagonism. The authors then declare that “Figures 8 and 9 show that the conflict over climate-change policy is rooted in profound ideological differences”, when in fact these figures only show the prejudiced opinions of the authors. The chart presents the trendy view that skepticism is all about politics and policy; it is stated that blogs were one of the inputs used to determine this, but Amelia Sharman has shown that skeptical blogs are very much focussed on the science.

Another recent example of this sort of thing is poster 2 at the ecolabs blog, which was presented at a recent climate communication conference and supposedly plots the position and influence of various people in the climate debate. Reading the small print on the poster, the whole thing is “speculative and subjective”. The poster is quite informative, not of the state of the climate debate, but of the prejudiced groupthink that permeates much of the social science field. In the mind of Dr Boehner who produced the poster, climate contrarianism is all about the Koch brothers, Exxon, Fox and Murdoch. Sceptical bloggers such as Anthony Watts (who sometimes gets 1/4 million page views per day), Steve McIntyre, Bishop Hill and Jo Nova simply do not exist – Barry and I have asked her if she is aware of their existence. However, this poster of “prominent actors participating in climate communication” includes at least three who are no longer alive. This remarkable shoddy work reflects badly on Roger Pielke Jr’s group at the University of Colorado.

Of course, there is some good objective social science research being done in this field (Kahan, Sharman, Pearce, Grundmann…) but unfortunately the legacy of some awful earlier stuff lives on.

Robin Guenier responds to Jonathan Rowson

Last December, Jonathan Rowson wrote a paper A New Agenda on Climate Change: Facing Up to Stealth Denial and Winding Down on Fossil Fuels for the RSA. The report was criticised at Bishop Hill for its relentless muddled talk of ‘denial’ and failure to engage with the real arguments.

Robin Guenier has written a detailed set of notes commenting on Rowson’s paper (For a mini-bio of Robin, see the end of his document on UK climate policy on an earlier post).

Robin points out that details of a public opinion survey are not given in the RSA paper and appear to conflict with other surveys, and that the claim of an overwhelming consensus that climate change is a threat is unsubstantiated; the remainder of the paper is therefore built on two false premises. The issue of unilateral action by the UK being pointless (more “solitary lemming” than “setting a good example”) is discussed. There is criticism of the repeated inappropriate use of the term “denial”, which is confusing because it is used with different meanings. Finally, there are comments on the fact that global emissions will continue to grow – most countries have either not agreed on previous emissions-cutting agreements, (‘developing’ countries including China) or have backed out (e.g. Canada and Australia) – and that the need now is to focus on achievable aims such as adaptation. Read the notes in full for details and references.

Rowson says that his paper is “designed to provoke debate”, so I am sure he will welcome these comments, though it is a bit odd that apparently he has not responded to the notes that Robin Guenier sent him in March.

[The last three blog posts illustrate a common theme: people have been publishing papers saying that they wish to encourage public debate, yet provide no platform for such a debate and seem reluctant to engage in discussion.]

In my view, Rowson suffers from what I call the “Norgaard Delusion”. Kari Norgaard is a climate activist who visited a small town in Norway and was amazed to find that, despite people saying they were concerned about climate change, they continued their everyday lives, taking kids to school and even watching TV. She simply could not understand why they weren’t marching and protesting. So she decided they must be “in denial” and wrote a book about it. Rowson’s paper shows the same mindset, as does his latest blog where he cannot understand why a Labour policy document on economics does not discuss climate change.