By Dana Nuccitelli
28 May 2013
(The Guardian) – The Skeptical Science survey finding 97% expert consensus on human-caused global warming has drawn an incredible amount of media attention. Hundreds of media stories documented our survey and results. Lead author John Cook and I participated in a number of interviews to discuss the paper, including on Al Jazeera, CNN, and ABC. President Obama even Tweeted about our results to his 31 million followers.
The story has been so popular mainly because our results present a simple but critical message. There is a wide gap between the public awareness and the reality of the expert consensus on human-caused global warming.
Additionally, as John Cook has discussed, research has shown that perception of consensus is linked to support for climate policy. This is true along most of the ideological spectrum – when people are aware of the expert consensus on human-caused global warming, they are more likely to support taking action to solve the problem.
Opponents of climate action have been aware of the powerful influence of the scientific consensus for decades. As far back as 1991, Western Fuels Association launched a $510,000 campaign to "reposition global warming as theory (not fact)" in the public perception. A memo from communications strategist Frank Luntz leaked in 2002 advised Republicans "to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate."
Thus although our results were straightforward and consistent with previous research, we were not surprised when they met with resistance from certain groups, and anticipated the critiques with an FAQ. However, in reviewing the various criticisms of our paper, we noticed some common threads amongst them. A 2009 paper published in the European Journal of Public Health by Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee discussed five characteristics common to scientific denialism:
1) Cherry picking;
2) Fake experts;
3) Misrepresentation and logical fallacies;
4) Impossible expectations of what research can deliver; and
5) Conspiracy theories.
These characteristics were present throughout the criticisms of our paper, and in fact we found examples of each of the five characteristics among them.
For example, the author of one blog post contacted a handful of scientists whose papers were included in our survey and claimed that we had 'falsely classified' their papers. Climate economist Richard Tol echoed the criticism of our paper in this blog post. This particular criticism manages to check off three of the five characteristics of scientific denialism.
Specifically contacting these few scientists is a classic example of cherry picking. Our survey received responses from 1,200 climate researchers; the author of this post carefully selected a few of them who all just happen to be well-known climate 'skeptics'. It's also a variant of the fake expert characteristic, as John Cook explained in his textbook with G. Thomas Farmer, Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis.
"A variation of the Fake Expert strategy is to take the handful of remaining dissenting climate scientists and magnify their voices to give the impression of more significant disagreement then there actually is."
The handful scientists contacted for this blog post are among the less than 3% of climate researchers who dispute human-caused global warming. As a result, the voices of this small minority of 'skeptics' are magnified. [more]