Circling the Square

Circling the square

I’ve been attending a two-day meeting at Nottingham, Circling the Square, organised by Reiner Grundmann and colleagues from the Institute for Science and Society at Nottingham. This follows a successful similar meeting last year. The conference has its own blog, where video, audio and text from the meeting are gradually being uploaded.

The themes of the meeting were science and its links with policy, with the public and with the media. Many aspects of science were discussed, including for example drugs policy, where ex-Government Advisor David Nutt gave a keynote talk that contained some interesting points but rather over-stated his case with some dubious claims. But I will concentrate here on the climate-related aspects of the meeting. Whereas some social science conferences on these topics are little more than echo chambers for activists, this is certainly not the case with this meeting, which included a broad range of views.

Mike Hulme – “Scientists speaking with one voice: panacea or pathology?”

Mike Hulme (UEA) is the author of (amongst many other publications) an interesting book Why we disagree about climate change.

On Tuesday morning, he gave an hour-long keynote talk on “Scientists speaking with one voice: panacea or pathology?”, discussing issues around the consensus debate on climate change. He asked whether consensus messaging is normal or useful in science, and whether figures such as 97% actually mean anything. He noted that the ‘high degree of consensus’ was used in the first IPCC assessment (1990), arising from group deliberations, and that more recently this had been picked up by what he called the ‘consensus entrepreneurs’ and ‘consensus defenders’.

He discussed possible motivations for the consensus, including shoring up authority, providing a foundation for policy, and closing down dissent, before describing the so-called linear model, or “the plan” (Sarewitz), or “gateway belief”, which states that establishing a scientific consensus with the public will lead to public support and policy action. He mentioned a recent paper by Van der Linden et al that claimed to find evidence to support this. But bizarrely, their own data in fact does not support the hypothesis at all – their measure of support for action only rose marginally from 75.2 to 76.9, as noted by Dan Kahan, who had previously pointed out that a decade or so of consensus messaging has had no impact.

He also quoted from a paper “Should we aim for consensus?” by Beatty and Moore (2010): “Requirement of unanimity is pernicious” and “the authority of a scientific body is not undermined by questioning, but depends on it”. A key point he made was that consensus is insufficient – far more important than the numerical value of any consensus is the character and integrity of the scientists.

Here is his conclusions slide (HT Mike Schafer)

The ensuing Q&A session discussed whether consensus messengers were mainly from other fields, whether climate scientists had overstated the case, and whether consensus messaging could fail because of the romantic appeal of the underdog.

“Science advice” panel

The remaining sessions were in the form of ‘panels’ where a group of three or four people give very short introductory talks around a theme, followed by a substantial discussion session involving audience and panel members.

The first panel session was on “Science advice” and opened with some words of wisdom from Miles Parker, who had worked at DEFRA. He said that scientific advisors needed to ‘understand their interlocutors’, something that scientists were not really trained to do. ‘If you want to advise, first listen’. Perhaps David Nutt could have benefited from this.
Also on this panel was climate scientist Hans von Storch. He emphasized that scientists have their own values and preferences, and tend to think of their own fields as being particularly significant, and that scientists should be more aware of their own cultural background and ways of thinking. His text has been posted on the conference website.

“Science, uncertainty and science advocacy” panel

On Monday afternoon, Judith Curry was on a panel on the topic of “Science, uncertainty and science advocacy”. Her introductory statement can be seen at her blog. She defined advocacy as “forceful persuasion”, making an analogy with lawyers. She said she was concerned that too many scientists, and too many professional societies, were indulging in advocacy. She also complained that she herself had been (falsely in her view) accused of advocacy. She felt that many climate scientists have done a poor job of assessing uncertainty, and understated it. She pointed out that there is really no code of conduct for scientists communicating with the public, and this had resulted in irresponsible behaviour by some.

On the same panel, Conrad Brunk made some similar points: science is increasingly being used for advocacy, and there is a tendency to downplay uncertainty. Scientists talk to the public in a different way from how they talk to each other, and this can make them vulnerable to criticism.

Daniel Sarewitz made some interesting points about uncertainty. He said that uncertainty is easy to define if you have a large sample of data points, but this is not the case for ‘wicked problems’ such as GM and climate. For example, he said that statements such as “there’s a 10% chance of 6C of warming this century” really have no meaning. He suggested that in such cases we should not use the word “uncertainty”, but should talk about “disagreement” instead.

“Science and the media” panel

This was followed by a panel session on “Science and the media” including Leo Hickman, formerly of the Guardian, now at Carbon Brief, who discussed the role of the advocating journalist, saying that this was valid as long as it was transparent. He also addressed the issue of poorly worded press releases (this was also discussed last year, particularly by David Colquhoun). He proposed that it was important for the scientists themselves to take control over press releases and sign them off personally, rather than relying on University press offices.

Mike Schäfer (Zurich) also spoke about the problems with press releases – according to one investigation, 40% of university press releases contain exaggeration. He also raised concern about possible increasing segmentation, with people selecting their own preferred media source now that so many different sources are available.

“Science and the civil society” panel

On Tuesday after Mike Hulme’s talk there was a session on “Science and civil society” that included Ben Pile. He described a ‘bubble’ of interactions between governments, academia, NGOs and business, from which he said the public was excluded. He criticised NGOs, saying that they were sometimes incorrectly seen as representing the public, and that this amounted to a ‘democratic deficit’. He showed data indicating decreasing hunger and mortality, together with increasing food production and GDP in developing countries such as Bangladesh, and said that statistics showed that climate was well down on the list of risk factors for developing countries – thus challenging the “climate change predominantly affects the poor” narrative.

In the ensuing discussion, Peter Webster mentioned the substantial drop in deaths from storms, which can be attributed to greatly improved weather forecasts. Ben’s controversial remarks about NGOs went unchallenged until, near the end of the discussion, panel member Maurice Frankel (famous for his role in the FoI campaign) said that he didn’t see a problem with NGOs, as they countered the view of the industry lobby.

It was interesting and encouraging to see Ben Pile and co-panellist Stevianna de Saille chatting amicably afterwards, despite being at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their views on environmental activism and green NGOs.

Thanks to Reiner Grundmann and colleagues for organising a very interesting meeting (and apologies to all those panellists I haven’t mentioned).

Angry intolerance backfires

Tim Hunt

Tim Hunt made some very stupid remarks about women in science. He says they were intended as a joke, but they certainly weren’t taken that way. According to his wife, he was told to resign immediately or be fired. He was also forced to resign from other posts. Despite this, he continued to be vilified by the Angry Intolerant Left (AIL), with remarks like

This is a moment to savour.

Sympathy for The Devil? My thoughts on the #TimHunt “witch hunt”.

while others completely misrepresented what had happened:

If someone’s going around screaming “I’M A WITCH” and turning people into toads, politely asking him to stop is not a “witch hunt”.

Some people, notably Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins, said there had been an over-reaction. They were in turn attacked, and their statements misrepresented, by the AIL:

Here is my response to @thetimes, and less predictable apologists for sexism. @RichardDawkins and @ProfBrianCox

In the last few days, sympathy for Hunt seems to have increased. Eight Nobel prizewinners spoke out. The Boston globe wrote an article The right to be stupid, and the Guardian/Observer wrote about the support Hunt received from female scientists, saying that support for him has ‘mushroomed’. These pieces in two left-leaning newspapers, who would normally be expected to follow the PC line,  show how badly the behaviour of the AIL has backfired. An editorial in The Week goes further:
“Look at the savagery with which poor Tim Hunt was hounded for his silly comments about women…A key aspect of tolerance is to make allowances for people’s stupidity, for their gaffes, for their psychological hangups. They deserve a fair measure of ridicule, but we seem much happier turning fools into enemies, demanding their excommunication and savouring their despair.”

The General Election

In a previous post I discussed the possible reasons for the surprise Conservative victory and the failure of the pollsters to predict it.
An interesting article by Diana Beech in the Times Higher suggests that the AIL may have played a role here. An academic at Cambridge, she describes how she approached the election as a floating voter without strong political views, but was put off by the attitude of her (mainly academic) friends and colleagues:
“instead of managing to persuade me to put a cross in the box for the Left, the relentless, self-righteous and intolerant nature of the comments I saw from colleagues on my Facebook feed only drove me away from even considering joining their cause.”
“Of course, I want to see fairness, equality and justice prevail in any policies governing my country. But I didn’t appreciate seeing, time and time again, posts from my peers packed full of expletives implying that I was bigoted for even doubting the Labour or the Green economic approach.”

She voted Conservative. Another backfire for the angry intolerant left.

The Climate Debate

There is an analogy in the case of public opinion over climate change. Some people seem to be puzzled that public concern over climate change, and support for climate policy, are not as high as they would like. Well, I’ve written a paper about this. One factor may be the tendency for some at the extreme left of the climate spectrum to denounce anyone who doesn’t share their views as a “climate denier”, or as “oil shills” or paid by the Koch brothers. While some sceptics and lukewarmers get quite cross about this, I don’t, firstly because resorting to such childish name-calling shows that they have no valid arguments, and secondly because this intolerant aggressive behaviour is likely to backfire. A recent paper, The ironic impact of activists, indicates that some social scientists are becoming aware of this point.

Making things up about Jeb Bush

I’m no fan of the Bush family. I couldn’t believe it when those dumb Americans voted for W, then did it again 4 years later. Now apparently his brother Jeb is going to stand for President. Those Yanks must be so glad they got rid of hereditary monarchy.

But to climate activists, it seems that Jeb Bush is so evil that misrepresenting what he said is perfectly acceptable, and normal standards of integrity don’t apply.

Here’s what Bush said, according to Reuters

“Look, first of all, the climate is changing. I don’t think the science is clear what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. It’s convoluted. And for the people to say the science is decided on, this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you.”

“It’s this intellectual arrogance that now you can’t even have a conversation about it. The climate is changing, and we need to adapt to that reality.”

Now here’s how the climate propaganda brigade reported what he said. First up, Mat Hope, Associate Editor at NatureClimate with a focus on social sciences.

A double misrepresentation – Bush didn’t refer to scientists, nor did he he say talking about climate science was arrogant. When challenged on this, Hope claimed that it was “fair paraphrasing” and that his tweet was an “analysis” of what Bush had said.

Not quite as bad, climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer said

Here he’s making an unjustified presumption – there’s no evidence he was talking about climate scientists. In fact “The science is settled” tends to be a claim made by journalists and politicians, not scientists. Since Bush is a politician, he’s probably talking about Obama.

Then there was the ubiquitous Bob Ward,

Quite was is meant to be “denial” in Bush’s statement isn’t clear.

Finally, HuffPost writer Kate Sheppard says

Bizarrely, she quotes Bush in her article, so anyone reading it can see that her tweet and the headline of her HuffPo article are, in the words of one of the climategate emails, “not especially honest”.

Tangentially related to this, and following up from the previous post on why the election opinion polls were wrong, there’s an interesting article in the Times Higher by an academic, Diana Beech, who confesses to the sin of voting Conservative. She says she was a floating voter but was driven to the right by the “self-righteous and intolerant nature of the comments I saw from colleagues on my Facebook feed”. She goes on to say “The belligerence of the Left’s intelligentsia in the social media sphere – at least in my circles – left no room for the balanced, honest debate which could have ultimately brought undecided voters into the fold.”

Climate communication experts could perhaps benefit from reading this and giving some thought to how this might work in the case of public opinion on climate change, where the belligerence and intolerance of the activist left is just as bad, if not worse. It’s unlikely that Hope, Oppenheimer, Ward and Sheppard will take any notice.

Another triumph of expert predictions

One theme of this blog has been the failure of the predictions made by expert climate scientists, together with the failure to acknowledge or investigate this failure.

Last night we had another very interesting example of expert predictions failing. With all the results now in, we know that the Conservatives have 331 seats, and Labour 232.

How does this compare with the various predictions made just before the vote?

Con Lab Con – Lab
Final Result 331 232 99
YouGov (Peter Kellner) 284 263 21
Bookies (oddschecker) 287 267 20
Nate Silver (538) 278 267 11
Guardian 273 273 0
British Election Study 274 278 – 4

I’ve listed here some of the predictions made yesterday, in decreasing order of accuracy (Con-Lab difference). The “Bookies” row comes from Oddschecker, which lists odds provided by 20 or so bookies in a neat Table form (currently showing, for example, the options for next Labour Leader). You’ll have to take my word for it that I copied down their most likely outcome correctly. Nate Silver’s prediction is still on-line; he is sometimes regarded as a guru of great wisdom, despite having got the 2010 UK election spectacularly wrong (he predicted about 100 Lib Dem seats). The final projection from the Guardian was a dead heat between Labour and the Conservatives. The British Election Study is a group of, um, expert UK academics. Their final forecast is here.

The first thing to note of course is that everyone got it badly wrong, greatly underestimating the Conservative support. Reasons for this include
(a) the “Closet Conservative” factor – there is a tendency for people not to own up to supporting the Conservative party, and
(b) incorrect sampling by the pollsters – perhaps quiet conservatives stay at home, don’t answer the phone much and aren’t as eager as some others to express their opinions.
However, I thought that the pollsters were well aware of these factors, particularly since the 1992 election when something very similar happened, and compensated for it.

But what I found most interesting is that of all the predictions, the worst was that given by the team of expert university academics. Roger Pielke wrote a post about their predictions back in March, when their average prediction was similar to that in the table above, suggesting a small lead for Labour. There was a consensus – in fact not a 97% consensus, but a 100% consensus – among the experts that the Conservatives would get less than 300 seats. But the consensus was wrong.
Why does a team of experts perform worse than the bookies, who presumably base their odds mainly on the money placed, i.e. on public opinion?! One possible explanation for this apparent contradiction is suggested by the work of Jose Duarte and others, on the effects of the well-known left-wing bias in academia; it may be that inadvertently the researchers are building in their own political bias into the assumptions they make in their model, and this is influencing their results.

Other possible explanations for the surprise election results and the apparent failure of the expert predictions are as follows:

  • This is just a short-term fluctuation – a hiatus, or pause, in the Labour vote – that the models cannot be expected to predict correctly. The experts have much more confidence in their projection for the 2100 election. (HT David)
  • The raw data from the election results is not reliable, and needs to be adjusted by the experts. After suitable UHI and homogeneity adjustments have been applied, the results are in line with the expert predictions, and Ed Miliband is declared the new Prime Minister.
  • More funding and bigger computers are urgently needed, so that we can get more accurate predictions.
  • The missing Labour voters are hiding at the bottom of the oceans.

Finally, Feynman’s rule applies again:

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

Updates and links:

Roger Pielke has published his evaluation of the predictions: “… mass carnage for the forecasters”. He notes a really interesting point, that asking people who they think will win in the constituency is more effective than asking them who they will vote for.
He also has an article in the Guardian.

The BBC has a post-mortem How did pollsters get it so wrong? which asks many questions but offers few answers beyond mentioning the “shy conservative” effect.

One Survation poll was very accurate – but was not published because it was so out of line with all the others!

Both the Tories and Labour had their own internal polls in the final week suggesting that the seat split would be about 300 – 250 (The Times, 9 May). But they kept this to themselves, either doubting it or in Labour’s case so as not to discourage the faithful.

Paddy Ashdown argues that the inaccurate opinion polls were a factor in the Lib Dem collapse – if the polls had shown the true Tory lead, the SNP fear factor would have been diminished and the value of the Lib Dems as a moderating influence would have been enhanced.

Tory MEP Daniel Hannan says the answer to why the polls got it wrong is given in this quote from Edmund Burke, a more poetic version of my answer (b).

Frank Furedi in Spiked goes for answer (a): “Is it not worrying that in a free society ordinary citizens feel uncomfortable with publicly expressing their true opinions?”

Josh has produced a cartoon

Josh also links to a Dan Hodges piece from April 30th predicting a Tory lead of 6-7 points – spot on (Andrew Lawrence got it right too – see also Ian Woolley’s comment below).


Newsnight on 11 May looked into why the polls did badly. Survation thought there was simply a late swing. Labour’s internal poll had shown they were behind for months – more details here and here. The “shy conservative” and “poor sampling” factors were also mentioned.

Lord Ashcroft says he did not make a prediction, but then contradicts himself by saying he got it right regarding Scotland and UKIP. Acknowledging the underestimate of the Con vote, he suggests late swing, Tory micro-targetting of key seats, and Shy Tory as factors. (In my marginal constituency there was no effective Tory micro-targetting).

In The Conversation there’s a jaw-dropping apologia for the failure of the pollsters by two academics who seem to be in denial. They come up with a confidence intervals excuse that doesn’t survive the simplest scrutiny – see my comment there. There’s a climate analogy here again – the group defends itself and refuses to acknowledge its errors.

538 are much more honest, admitting straight away that they got it wrong. They say they adjusted for the “stick with what we know” factor, but nowhere near enough. A second article says it’s all down to getting the vote share wrong, but doesn’t say why they got that wrong.

Matt Singh has a post-mortem saying that factors may be electoral flux (meaning things were very different this time because of UKIP and the SNP), shy voters, and overestimated turnout. He also wrote a very detailed blog post on the shy Tory effect the day before the election, ending with a spot-on prediction of a Con lead of 6 points (HT botzarelli in comments).

In the Mail, an Ipsos Mori pollster claims that the problem with the polls was mainly that the Labour supporters just didn’t bother to vote. I don’t find that explanation at all convincing.

David Spiegelhalter says he got it wrong and acknowledges Matt Singh’s success. He praises the exit poll, discusses some suggestions for improvement but sits on the fence regarding what actually went wrong.

The Guardian says that more accurate results are obtained if you ask people other questions about their values first, rather than just leaping in with “who are you going to vote for”. This sounds odd to me – like steering. It also repeats the claim that the Tory internal polls had told them they’d win comfortably.

Paper on climate scepticism published

A little over a year ago I noticed a call from the journal Environmental Communication for a special issue of articles on “Climate change communication and the internet”.  For some time I had been thinking vaguely about writing something about the interesting Reader Background thread at Jeff Condon’s Air Vent blog, so I wrote a paper on this and sent it to the journal.

The paper was handled very well by the journal.  It was reviewed ‘double-blind’, i.e. both the author and reviewers were anonymous. This isn’t usually done in my field but apparently it’s quite common in social science.  The reviewers were clearly experts in the field; they read the paper very carefully and made a lot of comments, criticisms and constructive suggestions for improvement. I revised the paper and then there was another round of quite detailed comments, but after that the paper was accepted.

The published paper is here, paywalled because I did not pay Taylor & Francis the Open Access fee.  However, apparently I can give 50 people access to the paper – let me know if you’d like this (in the olden days, you used to get a bundle of 50 paper reprints to mail out).  Alternatively there is a draft preprint version of the paper, before the review comments, with a few very minor changes. It contains a bit more discussion and opinion, fewer up-to-date references, and more mistakes, than the final version.

Below is a brief summary of the main points of the paper.

Why are people sceptical about climate change?

Surveys show that a significant minority of the population are sceptical about climate change and that there has been a modest increase in scepticism over the last few years. Some research has considered why this may be, but surveys do not usually ask people exactly what it is that makes them sceptical. There is some useful information on this question in comments on climate sceptic blogs, but this has not been studied in the literature. However, it should be kept in mind that these views expressed in blog comments are probably not representative of the general public.

In April 2010, Jeff Condon launched a “Reader Background” post, proposing “a discussion of our various backgrounds and how we came to be interested in climate science”. I count that there are 154 people on that thread who express some degree of scepticism about climate change. 17 of these explicitly call themselves lukewarmers, and at least 8 others express lukewarm opinions, so about 1/6 can be regarded as lukewarmers – though this is probably an underestimate. At the other end of the spectrum, about 1 in 10 are what might be called “hardcore sceptics”, using language like “scam” in relation to climate change.  Over 1/4 of the responders say they have a PhD, and a further 1/3 have some form of degree.  More than 1/4 say they switched from being concerned about climate change to being sceptical.

Reasons given for scepticism include

  • Hype and alarmism, either in the media or from climate scientists. 32 people give this as a reason.
  • Memories of previous scares, such as the 1970s ice age scare, mentioned by 15.
  • Politics – some say  the climate story seems politically motivated, others say  it does not fit with their own views, which often lean more towards libertarianism than conservatism.
  • Climategate is mentioned by 30 people, but only seems to have been a major influencing factor for 13. The survey was only 5 months after climategate, so most had probably already formed their view.
  • Poor science is mentioned by about 60, with the hockeystick most common issue.
  • Blogs – Climate Audit is most cited (57 times), followed by RealClimate (42 times) with many negative comments about their attitude and apparent failure to answer questions satisfactorily.
  • Other minor factors include books, newspapers and films.

Two other blogs have carried out similar exercises, see Judith Curry’s Denizens thread (Nov 2010) and My personal path to Catastrophic AGW skepticism at WUWT (July 2013). These show a similar picture – though there is some overlap in the contributors.

Another dumb climate psychology paper

A paper Public division about climate change rooted in conflicting socio-political identities was published yesterday in Nature Climate Change. The six authors, Bliuc et al, come from Social Science and Psychology departments in Australia. There is also an associated News & Views article by Tom Postmes, Psychology: Climate change and group dynamics.

The paper is truly awful, in so many ways, and effectively illustrates the blinkered thinking that is endemic in the field, nicely summarised by Andy West in his recent post at Climate etc. The following paragraphs raise some of the problems with the paper.

It starts badly, with unquestioning assertion of the Cook et al 97% consensus paper. As usual this is stated in an unclear way, “97% agree that climate change is caused by humans” (what, some of it? Most of it? All of it?), a feature that Ben Pile refers to as consensus without an object.

Then the paper simply declares that
“The public is divided between climate change ‘believers’ (whose views align with those of the scientific community) and ‘sceptics’ (whose views are in disagreement with those of the scientific community)”
It’s as simple as that. It’s us v them. The goodies and the baddies. Although there is a brief mention later on of multiple shades of opinion, this is dismissed with the statement “we argue that there is value in seeing climate change believers and sceptics as conflicting opinion-based groups.” Yet the paper and the News & Views piece talk about overcoming divisions, and conflict reduction – reducing a division that they themselves have artificially created. This is the same criticism I raised regarding Homer-Dixon et al (I have just noticed that the journal has now published my comment on that paper).
This isn’t just stupid – it’s really damaging.

The main “finding” of the paper is, as suggested in the title, that it’s all to do with social group identity. They say “we argue that people come to see climate change beliefs and scepticism not just as an opinion on an issue, but as an aspect of self that defines who they are, what they stand for, and who they stand with (and against)” and “the results support the contention that cultural polarization and political mobilization are at the core of the climate change divide.” This is the main idea of Dan Kahan’s work, even down to the exact wording used, “who they are”. But, amazingly, none of Kahan’s papers are cited (again, this was one of my criticisms of Homer-Dixon et al). As previously mentioned, I think there’s an element of truth in this argument, but it’s usually overstated.

As usual with such papers, although the text is nonsense, there are some interesting points in the data obtained. One of the issues they asked ‘sceptics’ and ‘believers’ about is their “anger at the opposing group”. The numbers came out (on some scale) at 2.84 for sceptics, but 4.10 for believers. We’ve seen recently several examples of the obscene vitriol directed towards even those who are moderately sceptical about climate change.
But the way this data is reported by Bliuc et al is astounding: “We note, in particular, that part of the sceptic group consciousness is anger at climate change believers”. The smaller number (sceptic anger at believers) is highlighted, while the considerably larger number (believer anger towards sceptics) is ignored.

Another common theme in these papers is that the main aim is how to change the minds of the sceptics: “strategies for building support for mitigation policies should go beyond attempts to improve the public’s understanding of science, to include approaches that transform intergroup relations”. This seems particularly devious: “efforts to undermine group efficacy, for example, by convincing sceptics that their actions are unlikely to prevent action on climate change, represent a more plausible path.” They are recommending that people should try to undermine sceptical groups – presumably they would condone the hounding of Lennart Bengtsson when he dared to join the GWPF.

The paper has a fair amount of jargon-speak. I liked this sentence: “Given that there are different causal orders proposed by existing models we conceptualize the antecedents of action as an integrated cluster of variables that represent a distinct group consciousness for believers and for sceptics, each of which predicts commitment to action to support the cause they each support.” I have no idea what it means – perhaps “we drew some pictures”.

In summary, we have a biased paper promoting political activism, exacerbating division and with a main conclusion that has already been stated many times in the literature. How did this rubbish get published? Oh, it’s in Nature.

There are articles about the paper at The Register, at The Conversation and at WUWT.

Converts to scepticism / agnosticism

“…they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

Some time ago I mentioned that two prominent climate sceptics, Anthony Watts and Patrick Moore, were originally active believers in the climate change cause and subsequently changed their minds and became sceptical. It turns out that quite a few prominent climate sceptics have followed this course.

This is interesting, because some of the academic literature says that peoples’ climate scepticism is related to their ‘worldview’ or the opinions of their cultural group. Intriguingly, when this concept originated in the work of Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky in the early 1980s, it was used rather the other way round – to provide an explanation of the surge in interest in environmentalism, a point which is now generally overlooked.

Now, it’s probably true that views on other issues and group allegiance may influence views on climate change, but this often seems to be overstated, and is often only stated one way round.  It  doesn’t seem to apply for these people here, who have been concerned about climate change, often as part of a group,  and subsequently changed their mind to a greater or lesser degree. Here are details of some of these converts, in no particular order, starting with the two already mentioned.

Anthony Watts

Anthony Watts is the man behind Watts Up With That?, described as “the world’s most viewed climate website”, which regularly runs articles very critical of the claims of climate science.  It has been running since 2006 and has won various awards.

On his About page, he says that he has an electric car and has solar panels on his roof. There is an interview with him here, where he says: “I started out actually just being a climate alarmist. I got involved with saving the planet by helping other weather forecasters do the same thing through planting trees. Then when I met the State climatologist in California, his data changed my mind and now I’m a skeptic.” He also talks of starting to ask questions about the effect of different coatings on Stevenson Screens, in his pre-sceptic days.

Patrick Moore

Not the astronomer, but the environmentalist and co-founder of Greenpeace who has been in the news recently having reported to a US Senate Committee, discussed by The Independent and by WUWT.  The Independent article says that  having helped set up  Greenpeace in 1971, he left in 1986 after they became more interested in politics than science. It seems that Greenpeace has been re-writing their history, deleting his name from the list of founders on their website some time between 2005 and 2008. 

In this interview he gives more details of how became disillusioned with the green movement as it became more ideological, and goes on to  say that we don’t really understand the factors that affect the climate and that so-called “cures” would cause more harm than the “disease”. Another interview is here, and here is one for Spiked, where he says global warming is a religion that plays on fear and guilt . He has written a book, Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout.

Jo Nova & David Evans

Jo Nova runs the most prominent climate sceptic blog in Australia.  In fact, her
blog was identified as on of the three “most central” sceptic blogs globally by a recent study, along with with Watts Up With That and Climate Audit. On her About page she says “A long time ago she was a Green, and still wants to save the world, but with the scientific method”.  She is married to David Evans, who has produced a number of sceptical articles and youtube videos. He used to work for the Australian Greenhouse Office modelling carbon, but during that time became increasingly sceptical.

A transcript of an interview with Jo Nova and David Evans gives much more detail.

David: “I used to work for Department of Climate Change, or as it was back then the Australian Greenhouse Office for about five or six years doing carbon modelling for them and I was out there to save the planet. I was also a member of the Labor Party on and off for 15 years and I was a member of Greenpeace so I was a believer, I thought I was saving the planet and I thought this plan problem was a really momentous one that needed solving straight away. As the years went by I found out more evidence, the evidence supporting it drifted away and evidence started accumulating that the man made hypothesis wasn’t true and so I changed my mind.”

Jo: “I was actually a member of the Australian Greens, it’s the only political party I’ve ever been a member of so … I am concerned about the environment, I’m concerned about doing things sustainably. I worry about the country that we leave for our kids …”

There are video interviews with Jo Nova, David Evans and Anthony Watts here.

Verity Jones

Verity runs a blog called Digging in the Clay. This may not be one of the most high-profile sceptic blogs, but interestingly it was one of the few to get the climategate 2 link in November 2011.

On her about page she reports:  “Climate change came along. I embraced the science and became quite evangelistic about it. But then finally something happened. The scientist in me can’t help but listen to debate, and I didn’t like what I was hearing. The scientists began to sound like politicians and the politicians looked as if they were being asked to kiss babies. And it all became loud and complicated. So I dusted the cobwebs out of my brain and started to read, and learn, and question.”

Judith Curry

Whether Judith Curry is a “climate sceptic” or not depends on how broad your definition of the term is. But via her blog she has certainly raised some awkward questions for climate science and the IPCC, and her views have clearly changed over the last few years. In an interview in May, Chatting With ‘A Climate Heretic’, she said that on a scale from 1 (intense skeptic) to 10 (intensely IPCC orthodox) she moved from about 7 to about 3 since 2009. She cited “Climategate and the weak response of the IPCC and other scientists” as a major factor, along with the lack of a satisfactory explanation for the current pause in warming. Earlier, in 2010, she wrote at her own blog of her transition from a “high priestess of global warming” to engagement with skeptics and a critic of the IPCC.

Graham Strouts

Graham Strouts blogs and tweets under the name Skepteco. His about page starts with radical environmentalism:  “I grew up in the south of England and studied sociology at Essex University 1983-6. Leaving with a radical view of the world and feeling certain that modern society was both unjust and unsustainable- and that its demise would probably be a good thing- I spent the next view years seeking a back-to-the-land lifestyle first in Shropshire, then in Scotland, finally moving to Ireland in 1990″ But then he goes on to say “More recently, I have started to question fundamentally many of my previous assumptions. This blog explores my change of direction and tries to separate the science from the ideology within the environmental movement.”

There are more details of his conversion from green ideology  in this post on GMOs, and more on this one, where he writes  “By baring all once again I hope my past delusions may serve as some kind of cautionary tale to the young radicals just getting going in life who may be open to some kind of guidance in making sense of the klaxons of environmental alarm that have scarcely quietened in the intervening years” before reposting an old blog entry  from his former self expressing “peak oil” fears. He has also written some interesting posts on political orientation.

Mike Haseler

Mike runs a blog called Scottish Sceptic, which among other things, recently conducted a survey of his predominantly sceptical audience.

He says:

“I was selected as a Green candidate for the Scottish Green party in 2003″
“I worked in the wind industry in Scotland”

But then goes on to say

“I am an agnostic on man-made warming, a sceptic by scientific training and disgusted with so called climate “science” which isn’t science as I was taught it.”

James Lovelock

Although he can’t really be described as a climate sceptic, environmentalist James Lovelock has been in the news recently for changing his tone on climate, and for plugging his new book, a Rough Ride to the Future. In an interview on BBC’s Newsnight,  he said “Well, take this climate matter that everybody’s thinking about. They all talk, they pass laws, they do things as if they knew what was happening. I don’t think any of them really know what’s happening. They just guess at it. And a whole group of them meet together and encourage each other’s guesses.” This is a big change from his previous apocalyptic pronouncements on climate, as discussed later in that interview and on his Wikipedia page.  See also his interview with ABC, I was alarmist about climate change.

Daniel Botkin

Botkin is an ecologist and environmentalist who has held posts at Yale and other universities and has over 40 years of research experience. He was chosen to give evidence to a US Committee hearing on the IPCC. His written evidence was very critical, saying that warming is not unusual, model predictions are way off reality, and that the IPCC had become politicised and was promoting an agenda.
In the question and answer session he made it clear that he feels that the case for man-made global warming is weaker than it was a few years ago.

Fritz Vahrenholt

Fritz Vahrenholt is a German politician and environmentalist.  He has worked at the German Umweltbundesamt (Environment Agency), and has also worked for a wind turbine company.  But in 2012, in collaboration with Sebastian Lüning, he wrote a book “Die kalte Sonne” with the subtitle “Warum die Klimakatastrophe nicht stattfindet” (why the climate catastrophe is not taking place). It’s been translated into English as “The Neglected Sun“. In an interview with Spiegel, he says “For years, I disseminated the hypotheses of the IPCC, and I feel duped.

Jim Steele

Jim Steele is an environmentalist at San Francisco State University, where he taught classes on plant and bird life at their Sierra Nevada Campus.  He has written a book,
Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism, see also Amazon page, the title of which does not need further explanation.  There is an interview with him here.

Jean-Louis Pinault

Pinault is a French hydrologist with a substantial record  of published research papers.
He has recently written a book, From the melody of the oceans to climate change: a fight against ostracism. On Amazon we can read the first few pages, where he says that following retirement he was able to pursue his interests without any concern about research funding, and writes “This long journey led me to admit that global warming has a natural cause”.

Caleb Rossiter

Rossiter is a statistician and policy analyst who made the news for being dropped from his position with the Institute for Policy Studies for questioning global warming orthodoxy. In this interview he says that about a decade ago he would have agreed with Obama that people who didn’t agree about climate catastrophe were fools, but since then he’s become convinced that claims about cause and effects of warming have been greatly overblown. In another recent interview he describes Obama as “delusional” on climate change, despite being himself on the political left, and criticises the IPCC for its claims of 95% certainty.

Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley is a “Rational Optimist” who adopts a “lukewarmer” view of global warming – future warming will be less than is often claimed and not a serious problem.  In this blog post he says that he he was surprised by the pause in warming and that now he worries that he is exaggerating the likely warming.

Here he says that in 1979 he voted for the Green Party (then known as the Ecology Party) and recounts his increasing disillusion, mentioning ‘ecotoffs’, IPCC exaggeration and the burden of climate policy on the poor.

Update 19 Jan: More from Ridley on his conversion, citing slower warming than predicted, previous apocalyptic predictions, the hockey stick, climategate and the failure of climate scientists to answer doubts as significant factors in his conversion to a ‘lukewarmer’ view.
This article he co-wrote back in 1993 implicitly accepts that warming is a problem, and discusses how to ‘save the environment’.

Margaret Thatcher

In 1989, Thatcher gave a speech to the UN, in which she said

“But the problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level. It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay. Whole areas of our planet could be subject to drought and starvation if the pattern of rains and monsoons were to change as a result of the destruction of forests and the accumulation of greenhouse gases.”

But by 2002, her view had changed completely, as shown by these excerpts from her book Statecraft:

“The doomsters’ favourite subject today is climate change. This has a number of attractions for them. First, the science is extremely obscure so they cannot easily be proved wrong”
“It would, though, be difficult to beat for apocalyptic hyperbole former Vice President Gore.”

See Thatcher & Global Warming: From Alarmist to Skeptic for more details.

Klaus-Eckart Puls

Puls is a meteorologist and one of the people behind the German climate sceptic blog EIKE.  In an interview titled “I’m ashamed about it today” (In German, but Google translate does a reasonably good job, or see this translation by Pierre Gosselin)  he says that until about 10 years ago he parroted without question what the IPCC said. Then he started to check the claims, and found that a lot of what the IPCC and the media say about climate change is not right and not supported by scientific facts and measurements.

Related blogs:

See also this blogpost from Pointman, which starts off with “One of the intriguing aspects of the climate wars is that you very frequently see people dropping comments on blogs that they started off as unthinking believers in catastrophic global warming but when they actually stopped and looked into it for themselves, became skeptics.” He followed this up with a second post, Sometimes you don’t have to anything but wait, where he talks of people crossing the aisle to the sceptic side, ending with “We don’t have to fight for converts – they find their way to us all by themselves.”

It is sometimes claimed that Berkeley physicist Richard Muller converted from scepticism, but this blog gives comments made by him in 2003 and 2008  showing that this is not true.

Many more converts to scepticism can be found on Jeff Id’s Reader Background thread, Judith Curry’s Denizens thread and My personal path to Catastrophic AGW skepticism at WUWT.


I will add more people who have become more sceptical or agnostic over time, as they come to my attention:

Blair King

Blair King is the author of the excellent A Chemist in Langley blog. The blog started off talking about pipelines and renewable energy, but seems to have got drawn in to the basics of the climate debate. In My Lukewarmer post, or how to lose friends on both sides in the AGW debate he sets out his lukewarm view and says he is skeptical of the political aspects. In this post he talks of his transition from “trust me” to “show me”, mentioning factors such as activist scientists predicting doom and particularly climategate as factors. He says (as many of us have said before) that the real problem wasn’t so much the bad behaviour of a few individuals, but the failure of the climate community to admit that there was a problem or deal with it. As a result of all this he says “I need to be convinced every time a new paper comes out and that convincing means releasing enough information so that work can be replicated” – a very simple point that some seem to be unable to understand.

Eija-Riitta Korhola

Korhola is a Finnish politician who served as an MEP for 15 years. She has recently completed a PhD on Climate Change as a Political Process, discussed at Roger Pielke’s blog and at Bishop Hill.

At the beginning of the thesis she writes some personal notes in the preface: “I was one of the first Finnish politicians to knowingly push the issue of climate change and its threats onto the political agenda. In 1994, I published my first effusions in Vihreä Lanka, a weekly green newspaper, to which I had contributed as a columnist for five years.” Later in the preface, hints of cynicism appear, such as “…during the great climate hype in 2007 when the political agenda changed abruptly. It seemed as if no issue could be promoted without mentioning the threat of global warming”, “the climate scare turned into a climate fatigue” and she is very critical of MEPs and the environmental movement. At the end of the thesis she includes some of her blog posts. Blog 15.49 “Is it true or not” says that temperatures are not in line with prediction, that she was flabbergasted by Climategate and that temperature data may have been massaged. The final blog included in the thesis is Confessions of a climate agnostic, where she writes of the warming pause and misleading consensus claims, and says that politicians should be ‘climate agnostic’.

Christopher Monckton

Monckton is a well-know sceptic of global warming who gives talks on the subject all over the world and has written his own version of the dead parrot sketch in which global warming salesman Pachauri claims that his product is not dead, just pausing. He has recently written a paper on why climate models run hot, along with Soon, Legates and Briggs.

In an interview, Monckton’s Journey From Warming Believer to Influential Skeptic, he says that when he was an advisor to the Conservative Party and Mrs Thatcher (see above) in the 1980s he drew her attention to the problem of global warming. He also says he spoke on the subject on the Clive James Show. Apparently his views changed in 2006 when he looked into the climate issue as part of an investigation into renewable energy.