The “Alice-in-Wonderland” consensus position

alice in wonderland

Advancing to the introduction of the “Alice In Wonderland” paper of Lewandowsky/Cook/Lloyd and already in the second sentence I bump into this (my emphasis):

… the consensus position that global warming is happening, is human caused, and presents a global problem is shared by more than 95 % of domain experts and more than 95 % of relevant articles in the peer-reviewed literature (Anderegg et al. 2010; Cook et al. 2013, 2016; Doran and Zimmerman 2009; Oreskes 2004; Shwed and Bearman 2010).

… presents a global problem …

… shared by more than 95 % of domain experts and more than 95 % of relevant articles in the peer-reviewed literature …


I have read the Anderegg 2010, Cook 2013, Doran & Zimmerman 2009 and Oreskes 2004 papers and at that time I found nothing of that kind. In none of those papers participants were asked whether they considered this warming to be a global problem.

Let’s look at what these papers actually investigated.

Oreskes 2004
(I wrote about this paper earlier).

Short version: Oreskes wanted to know how many papers disagreed with the position of the US National Academy of Science and the IPCC:

Human activities … are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents … that absorb or scatter radiant energy. … [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations

I have no problem with the first part. Human activities are putting CO2 in the atmosphere and it is a greenhouse gas.

The second part is more vague. “Most of the warming” and “likely to have been due” are not exactly clear identifiers. But whatever, it doesn’t look for papers that consider this warming to be a “global problem”. Only papers that show that the temperature increase was due to our emissions.

Doran & Zimmerman
(I wrote a post before on this paper)

The participants of the survey were asked two questions:

  1. When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen or remained relatively constant?
  2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?

Questions were asked about rising “mean global temperatures” and one’s opinion on human activity as a “significant contributing factor”, but the researchers didn’t ask whether these rising temperatures are considered a “problem”.

Anderegg et al
(I wrote about this paper earlier)

The statement that was assessed:

We defined CE researchers as those who signed statements broadly agreeing with or directly endorsing the primary tenets of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report that it is “very likely” that anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been responsible for “most” of the “unequivocal” warming of the Earth’s average global temperature in the second half of the 20th century.

The researchers just ask whether our emissions are responsible for most of the warming, not whether this is considered a “problem”.

Cook 2013
(loads of posts have been written about this: just click the tag Cook Survey).

This was what Cook et al examined:

We examined a large sample of the scientific literature on global CC, published over a 21 year period, in order to determine the level of scientific consensus that human activity is very likely causing most of the current GW (anthropogenic global warming, or AGW).

The researchers had seven endorsement Levels in which they classified the papers:

  1. Explicitly endorses and quantifies AGW as 50+%
    (paper explicitly states that humans are causing most of global warming)
  2. Explicitly endorses but not quantify or minimize
    (paper explicitly states humans are causing global warming or refers to anthropogenic global warming/climate change as a given fact)
  3. Implicitly endorses AGW without minimizing it
    (paper implies humans are causing global warming. E.g., research assumes greenhouse gases cause warming without explicitly stating humans are the cause)
  4. No position
    (paper doesn’t address or mention issue of what’s causing global warming)
  5. Implicitly minimizes/reject AGW (paper implies humans have had a minimal impact on global warming without saying so explicitly.
    E.g., proposing a natural mechanism is the main cause of global warming)
  6. Explicitly minimizes/rejects AGW but does not quantify
    (paper explicitly minimizes or rejects that humans are causing global warming)
  7. Explicitly minimizes/rejects AGW as less than 50%
    (paper explicitly states that humans are causing less than half of global warming)

No level indicating that they were looking for papers that declared Anthropogenic Global Warming as a “problem”.

Cook 2016

I hadn’t looked into this one yet. It is titled Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming and it seems not to be a new survey, but a rehash of previous surveys and an answer to Richard Tol (whose results differed from Cook 2013). They didn’t look for papers or scientist which classified the warming as a “global problem”.

Initially, I had high hopes for Shwed and Bearman 2010. That was the paper that I didn’t encounter before. The download seemed to be password-protected. Luckily there was some info about that paper in Cook 2016 (my emphasis):

Shwed and Bearman (2010) employed citation analysis of 9432 papers on global warming and climate published from 1975 to 2008. Unlike surveys or classifications of abstracts, this method was entirely mathematical and blind to the content of the literature being examined. By determining the modularity of citation networks, they concluded, ‘Our results reject the claim of inconclusive science on climate change and identify the emergence of consensus earlier than previously thought’ (p. 831). Although this method does not produce a numerical consensus value, it independently demonstrates the same level of scientific consensus on AGW as exists for the fact that smoking causes cancer.

Apparently, no questions were asked as it was a citation analysis that was “blind to the content of the literature”. It is therefor unlikely that they searched for those papers that claimed the warming was a “problem” or more specifically a “global problem”.

We have been through the whole list now and found no papers that investigated whether scientists would classify increasing temperatures as a “problem”. More, Cook was author of not one, but two of the referenced papers. He should have known that his own papers didn’t look into the question whether the temperatures present a global problem. His 2016 paper listed also the same papers as in this one. So unless he didn’t read those papers yet (which I find extremely unlikely) or wasn’t involved in one or more of his own papers (which I also find extremely unlikely), he should have realized that none of these papers looked into the statement that was so readily made in the “Alice In Wonderland”-paper.

The issue that I have with the claim: this is an unsupported claim that global warming is a problem and that this problem is global and that it is surveyed and found to be 95+% of the papers/experts standing behind this claim. While in reality none of the referenced papers investigated that aspect and at least one of the authors was an author in two of the referenced papers and should know that this claim was unsupported by the evidence. Yet, the claim is made in the second sentence of the introduction of a scientific paper, determining the playing field for what comes next in the paper.

I am trying to put is as politely as possible here, but I have a hard time imagining that this slipped in inadvertently and that the other authors, as well as the reviewers, just glossed over it.

Or maybe, just maybe, did the authors took a little bit too much inspiration from the title of their paper and just created their own reality 😉

The Shwed and Bearman paper is available here. The authors measure scientific consensus/contestation levels via citation analysis, they indeed don’t look into the question whether global warming “presents a global problem”.


10 thoughts on “The “Alice-in-Wonderland” consensus position

  1. TinyCO2

    Dr Lew is creating work that redefines the consensus. The next step is to reference Dr Lew’s papers. By the time the claim is a few references deep, who will remember what the real consensus was? In future consensus counts Dr Lew’s work will feature significantly despite having zero (and possible a negative number) knowledge of climate.


    1. trustyetverify Post author

      I don’t think that this redefined statement of the consensus has a central place in this paper. As far as I see it is used just to define the playing field and raise the stakes.

      But I certainly agree with the mechanism you describe. In this paper, the foundation will be laid for future papers. It will establish that the skeptic position is incoherent and it can be used to reference this in other papers. Whether this incoherence was framed makes no difference. It will be viewed as peer-reviewed research to build on.


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

  3. manicbeancounter

    Michel, I quite agree with the comments about the surveys. There is also an issue about who are the experts. The 97% that Doran and Zimmerman 2009 referred to were just 79 individuals, all publishing in the field of climate. It omitted meteorologists, many of whom are often highly sceptical of attempts to forecast so far ahead.
    At the other extreme, the Cook et al 2013 consensus consists of thousands of academics, many who have nothing to do with climate. As Jose Duarte stated about the papers examined :-

    They included – and counted as evidence of scientific endorsement – papers about TV coverage, public surveys, psychology theories, and magazine articles, but failed to count a journal article written by a climate scientist called “How serious is the global warming threat?”

    The definition of “climate expert” appears to be highly subjective and circular, based around professed belief in climate.


    1. trustyetverify Post author

      There is a lot to be said about the consensus papers. Not only the number of individuals or the definition of “relevant”. There is also the strange fact that they all come to the same number regardless of the different definitions,… Also when comparable fractions gave a different result, yet another selection is made and … miraculously the end result is somewhat above 97%. It seems more like an art of making convenient selections…


      1. Brandon Shollenberger

        For those who might be surprised at how all the “consensus” papers get the same numerical results, it might help to look at how the results have to be twisted, distorted or just cherry-picked to ensure that happens. I’ve written quite a bit about this, but a good example and introduction can be found here:

        The follow-up posts go into detaild about how the individual results are achieved, but that post is good as it shows a start of how Cook (2016) went through some of the most extreme contortions to get the results they wanted. Given just about every author of a “consensus” paper signed onto that paper, it should be clear good science is not the top priority for people (supposedly) studying this topic.


      2. Barry Woods

        I don’t know if you are aware the but Consensus Project private forum was leaked (Skeptical Science is John Cook’s website.. (thanks to Brandon for hosting the leaked copy)
        97% Consensus Project

        Here we see them trying to come up way with marketing the 97% consensus their paper will find, before – as one of them points out, doing any actual research.. (Jan 2012)

        Another fun topic, is after talking about marketing the 97% consensus, they spend some considerably time trying to actually define it.. whilst struggling to come up with a definition, to exclude skeptics from being part of the consensus.

        they are political activist on this subject, not to be trusted
        And there Climate Misinformers section (Plimer a Target)


  4. Pingback: Week in review – science edition | Climate Etc.

  5. Pingback: Weekly Climate and Energy News Roundup #242 | Watts Up With That?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s