Lewandowsky and Cook in Wonderland: “incoherent skeptic views” or “incoherent views of the authors on skeptic views”?

As a realist and an ex-believer, if I learned something in the last eight years, it is a more nuanced story than how it is brought, which is not picked up by believers. They view skeptics/realists as people that stubbornly reject “the science” and act as a brake for progress.

Been there, done that.

However, when I looked deeper into the matter, I realized that it is a much more nuanced story and context is very important.

I came across a very recent paper The ‘Alice in Wonderland’ mechanics of the rejection of (climate) science: simulating coherence by conspiracism by Lewandowsky, Cook and Lloyd. The authors of this paper seemed to completely neglect nuances and avoids giving any context. More, they seem to have elevated misrepresenting the arguments of skeptics to a true art form. It is the most elaborate form of straw man reasoning that I even saw (or probably will see).

alice in wonderland paper

On the bright side, I think this paper is a good basis for explaining the arguments of the skeptics and show how they are misrepresented. Most, if not all, will be presented in this paper.

This post will be about the abstract of this paper and how skeptics are (misre)presented there (attention for skeptics with a high blood pressure: it is even worse in the paper itself).

This is the part of the abstract that immediately caught my attention (my emphasis):

Instead, we suggest that people who reject the fact that the Earth’s climate is changing due to greenhouse gas emissions (or any other body of well-established scientific knowledge) oppose whatever inconvenient finding they are confronting in piece-meal fashion, rather than systematically, and without considering the implications of this rejection to the rest of the relevant scientific theory and findings. Hence, claims that the globe “is cooling” can coexist with claims that the “observed warming is natural” and that “the human influence does not matter because warming is good for us.”

As far as I know, most skeptics AGREE that the greenhouse gas effect exists and human emissions can have an influence on that. There is however a very small group that reject the greenhouse effect, but as far as I know these are not taken seriously (removed because it is subjective, difficult to quantify anyway and due to my own biases, see comments).

Unless the authors are talking about that very tiny group (which I don’t think is the case, looking at previous papers of Lewandowsky and Cook), they misrepresent the views of skeptics. It is a matter of nuance and nuance is completely missing in this paper.

From my own experience, skeptics DON’T REJECT that:

  • the Earth’s climate is changing (on the contrary!)
  • the greenhouse effect exists
  • temperatures are now higher than at the start of the measurements
  • human emissions add greenhouse gases like CO2 in the atmosphere
  • this extra emissions can result in a higher temperature.
  • there are risks involved in higher temperatures

They QUESTION the:

  • proposed strength of that effect (how much warming will there be with this human emissions addition)
  • certainty in which the consequences of the effect are proclaimed

They REJECT:

  • the notion that this warming will be necessarily bad/catastrophic
  • that we can be certain that warming will lead to catastrophes
  • that the consensus position is that warming will lead to catastrophic events (this has not investigated in papers that quantified the consensus and even if it would, it will be an opinion, not an established fact)

The example used in this abstract also lacks nuance. When skeptics talk about a natural warming, they talk about the temperature increase from around 1850. The current temperatures are higher than those measured back then and they think it is (mostly) natural (recovery from the Little Ice Age, later combined with some human influences).

When they talk about “cooling”, they are talking about the last, say 18 years, when there was no warming and maybe even a very slight downward trend in the satellite record (which should be our most accurate tool to measure GLOBAL temperatures, but only started at the end of the 1970s).

So they are not talking about the same time frame, yet this is completely neglected by the authors. The incoherence doesn’t come from the skeptics, but from the translation of the skeptic views by the authors.

The view that warming is good doesn’t contradict this either. There is no contradiction between the three views that:

  • the temperatures are now higher than at the start of the measurements in the 19th century
  • during the last 18 years or so there wasn’t much warming/maybe even slight cooling in the satellite records
  • this (past, current or future) warming may be good for us (or more correctly: “better than cooling”).

The contradiction is brought in by the authors themselves by rambling together statements over different time frames, making it sound as if they have conflicting views. Therefor I don’t think that this still hold for most of the skeptics:

Coherence between these mutually contradictory opinions can only be achieved at a highly abstract level, namely that “something must be wrong” with the scientific evidence in order to justify a political position against climate change mitigation.

That mechanism may or may not be right, but there is no conflicting views by skeptics, at least not according to the example given, only the ones that were created by the authors themselves. I think it is their translation of the skeptic’s view that is not coherent.

Here we have a paper in which the bias of the authors shines through. The subject of the paper is not the incoherent view of the skeptics, but the incoherent view of the authors on the skeptics. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

The good thing is that it are the authors that are in Wonderland, not the skeptics who they so wonderfully misrepresented.

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19 thoughts on “Lewandowsky and Cook in Wonderland: “incoherent skeptic views” or “incoherent views of the authors on skeptic views”?

  1. TinyCO2

    One of the biggest inconsistencies the paper tries to generate is by taking partial statements from different people. Since there is no sceptic consensus, of course there are different opinions that could be incompatible. If you compare random statements by warmists, even scientists, you could paint the impression of a split personality. Or are we to believe that Dr Lew thinks, like Emma Thompson, that the planet will warm 4 degrees by 2030? Typical stinky Lew paper.

    Reply
    1. TinyCO2

      Some of his supposed inconsistencies are facts and/or not inconsistent eg CO2 IS a trace gas and it IS plant food. Mars could be warming AND still be colder than the Earth despite the CO2.

      Reply
  2. tallbloke

    The Earth isn’t 33C warmer than it would be without an atmosphere. It’s nearly 90C warmer than it would be without an atmosphere. CO2 is only going to account for a tiny part of the 90C enhancement. So climate scientists had better work out what causes the rest of it.

    Commentators like Lewandowsky and Cook, who are clueless about the actual physical science, won’t be the ones who achieve this. They are the flotsam on the surface of the debate. The froth on the turbulent waters.

    Reply
        1. trustyetverify Post author

          I don’t know about the big bucks, but it certainly is classical propaganda material. Painting the opponent in an unfavorable way makes the cohesion of the in-group stronger.

          If the out-group is presented as stupid, ignorant, can’t even get their story straight and so on, then it will be very difficult to identify with that group and much easier to identify with the own (superior) group that is smart, got their story straight and even is supported by the majority.

          If someone isn’t familiar with the arguments, then it is easy to guess to which group he/she wants to belong.

        2. trustyetverify Post author

          Thanks for the link. I probably wouldn’t go that far on this blog, but I should bring a bit more humor in it. Initially I was baffled to find this in a scientific paper, but when taking a bit more distance, it is in fact just a caricature. Maybe I should better treat it that way.

  3. Brandon Shollenberger

    Heya. You might be interested in a post I wrote about this paper, which goes into a bit more detail on how these authors misrepresent things, including their own data and papers:

    http://www.hi-izuru.org/wp_blog/2016/09/a-new-consensus-paper-at-first-blush/

    There is a lot wrong with this paper. I barely scratched the surface. Still, it might give a bit of insight on some specifics.

    I do have to disagree with you on one thing though. You say as far as you know people who do things like reject the greenhouse effect aren’t taken seriously by many people. I can’t agree. Tim Ball is one of the most proliferate “sky-dragons,” a name given to that group of people. Most of his material is posted at Watts Up With That, where it is seen by tens of thousands of people (or more?) on a regular basis. Ian Plimer, who is quoted in this paper, all but denies the greenhouse effect, claiming we can’t even know the planet has warmed based on instrumental data (by misrepresenting material he quotes). He did that in a book he co-authored with Anthony Watts, Ross McKitrick and other big-name skeptics. He wasn’t the only one writing things like that in the book either.

    I don’t know how many people take the views of people like these seriously, but they’re definitely a vocal group which is accepted by the general skeptic community.

    Reply
    1. trustyetverify Post author

      Thanks Brandon

      Interesting blog post you wrote. You went much deeper in your analysis than my (rather superficial) post.

      Agreed that there is a lot wrong with this paper. Didn’t looked too deep into it yet, but already quite some problems showed up, like the “global problem”-statement and the supposed “inconsistencies” given without any context.

      I was baffled the first time when I read the paper, surprised something like this got published. I have read some previous papers from Lewandowsky, they were okay when not looking too deep. But this one is really ugly.

      I am currently working on a post on the “global problem” statement, which was really puzzling. Cook should have known that this was not something that he investigated in his paper and he should also have read the other papers (Oreskes, Doran & Zimmerman,…), so he should at least realize that none of them investigated that aspect…

      Maybe there will be other posts, depending on how much time I can spare (I am currently working on a project with a death line).

      I was indeed talking about the “dragon slayers”. I didn’t know that Tim Ball was also part of this group.
      My impression was that quite some sites were not exactly keen on them and in the past I also had some spam problems related to them. This combination probably influenced my perception.

      Reply
      1. Brandon Shellenberger

        I’m glad you found it interesting. There’s so much wrong with this paper it was hard to know where to begin/end. I wanted to give a quick response to the paper so people could get some insight into it when they first hear about it, but at the same time, it’s hard to decide what issues not to highlight. I was very tempted to just highlight the obvious lie of the paper, that the authors claimed studies showed a consensus on the idea global warming is a “global problem” when they know fully well those studies didn’t say anything of the sort. I don’t like crying, “Liar!” but that one is just too direct and explicit to be anything else.

        As for sky-dragons, they are definitely not approved of by people at some sites. Other sites welcome them with open arms though. It might be informative to note tallbloke commented just above and he runs blog posts which say things like:

        Thus, we have determined the entire 33C greenhouse effect, the surface temperature, and the temperature of the troposphere at any height, entirely on the basis of the 1st law of thermodynamics and ideal gas law, without use of radiative forcing from greenhouse gases, nor the concentrations of greenhouse gases, nor the emission/absorption spectra of greenhouse gases at any point in this derivation, demonstrating that the entire 33C greenhouse effect is dependent upon atmospheric mass/pressure/gravity, rather than radiative forcing from greenhouse gases.

        And have titles talking about “The Myth of ‘Backradiation'” and “The Fraud of the Atmospheric Greenhouse Effect..” I don’t know how many people take posts and bloggers that say things like this seriously, but it’s not like these views are expressed only by people who hide in dark recesses of the internet.

        Reply
        1. trustyetverify Post author

          Thanks Brandon

          Not sure why your comment went in moderation again. According to the settings only the first comment would be moderated, so I a bit puzzled to find your comment in moderation again.

          The first thing that caught my attention when I read the paper was that the authors represented the arguments of the skeptics without any nuance and without much context. It was their (distorted) view of the skeptical arguments that was in fact the subject of the paper (hence the title and the last sentence) and the conspiracy classification was the product of that view.

          To me that is the most important theme of this paper. I only noticed the “global problem”-statement later at a second read.

          They probably think that skeptics are stupid, ignorant people and that is how they were portrayed in the paper. Unfortunately for them, they made quite some mistakes because of this distorted view and that makes it easier to poke (loads of) holes in their paper.

          It looked like straw man reasoning to me: first paint your opponent in a certain way, then make a conclusion on that picture. It was strange to notice this so clearly in a “scientific” paper, so elaborately executed from the beginning until the end. And this got through peer-review… (but on the other hand, if I had no background information, I probably would have fallen for it too).

          You are right about the “sky dragons”. That statement is subjective and depending on the (probably limited number of) blogs that I read and my own experiences. I have never quantified how many sites/blogs are favorable for them, let alone take them seriously (that would even be a step further). If I criticize their views, it should be on the merits of their arguments, not on my past experiences. I will make a note of that in my post.

          Michel

        2. Brandon Shellenberger

          I think with my second comment might have landed in moderation because with my first comment, I hadn’t filled in the website part of the user field. I remembered to put it in for my second comment, but that might have made it seem like a second user even though the name and e-mail address were the same.

          Anyway,.I think our views on this subject are pretty much the same. I’ve talked about the approach you describe before (as have many others), as it is what Skeptic Science has been about since its creation. All that seems new now is that they’ve somehow gotten this behavior accepted by the “ever-so-important” peer-reviewed literature.

          By the way, I like your newest post. It does a good job of covering the problem, and even though you phrase things as politely as possible, it still comes across as quite damning.

  4. Pingback: More Bad Smells from the Lew-cum-Cookhouse | Climate Scepticism

  5. manicbeancounter

    This is an example of extreme inconsistency, or would be if it were true of any one person. Steve McIntyre, after much persistence, managed to obtain the data for the peer-reviewed article that made the claims. McIntyre found

    ..only two (!) respondents purported to believe that Diana faked her own death. Neither of these two respondents also purported to believe that MI6 killed Princess Diana. The subpopulation of people that believed that Diana staged her own death and that MI6 killed her was precisely zero.

    The lesson that I found previously was that whilst powerful statistical techniques are very useful in understanding data most fundamental is actually checking the data in many different ways, including from Excel pivot tables. When I looked at the Moon Hoax paper data with this technique in 2012 (the only person at the time to do so) I found that only 10 out of 1145 supported the conspiracy theory “NASA Faked the Moon Landings”. His snide reply, without citation, was to make it appear that only the experts using the sophisticated techniques could truly understand the data, when the opposite was true.

    Reply
    1. trustyetverify Post author

      In this paper it is not clear whether those claims are inconsistent or not. There is too little information and they are too generic. They could mean many things, depending on the context.

      That is a really interesting post you wrote back in 2012 and a good analysis. Liked it.

      Reply
      1. manicbeancounter

        Have recently read Brandon’s article on this paper. He quotes the following excerpt.

        Conversely, a known attribute of conspiracist thought is that it can appear incoherent by conventional evidentiary criteria. To illustrate, when people reject an official account of an event, they may simultaneously believe in mutually contradictory theories—e.g., that Princess Diana was murdered but also faked her own death (Wood et al. 2012). The incoherence does not matter to the person rejecting the official account because it is resolved at a higher level of abstraction; there is an unshakable belief that the official account of an event is wrong.

        Brandon then gives a very thorough explanation of how a correlation is generated despite no respondent in the survey actually agreeing with both conspiracies.
        In 2013, after Steve McIntyre’s finding, Josh produced a cartoon to illustrate.

        Not only does Lewandowsky produce correlations from diddly-squat, he keeps on repeating the falsehoods when shown to be wrong.

        Reply

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