“Genuine climate alarmists” spreading misinformation?

At the beginning of this week, I had my coffee-almost-spoiled-my-keyboard moment when I read a The Guardian article titled “There are genuine climate alarmists, but they’re not in the same league as deniers“. There were some surprising claims in this article and while writing this post, it became rather long, so I will split this into separate posts.

This first post will be about the main subject of the article. The author, Dana Nuticelli, explains that the skepticalscience site has a page about climate misinformers. Currently, all those misinformers are “deniers”, but Dana claims there are also “genuine climate alarmists” who spread misinformation. Those climate scientists are not in the list, their (failed) arguments are not debunked, yet part of a “constant deluge of climate myths”.

That is interesting to hear coming from this source.

Two examples of such “genuine climate alarmists” are provided in the article. The first is Guy McPherson. I have not heard of him before. He apparently claimed that climate change would likely drive humans to extinction by 2030. Dana explains that being already halfway and looking at the current human population, it will be rather unlikely that the human race is going extinct in the next couple decades. Okay, I can understand that this is a alarmist claim.

The other example is Peter Wadhams. I heard of him before and even wrote some posts mentioning him here, here, here and here. According to the article, Wadhams predicted in 2012 an ice-free Arctic by 2016, which didn’t happen when 2016 came along.

That was rather gentle description by Dana. Sure, Wadhams predicted an ice-free Arctic by 2016 in 2012, but he also predicted an ice-free Arctic:

  • by 2008 in 2008
  • by 2029 in 2009
  • by 2030-2040 in 2010
  • by 2013-2015 in 2011
  • by 2015-2016 in 2012
  • by 2015 in 2013
  • by 2020 in 2014
  • by 2015-2017 in 2015
  • by 2016-2017 in 2016.

I don’t know whether he made predictions in 2017 or 2018, but it doesn’t really matter since he still has loads of chances between 2020 and 2040.

The claim that Wadhams “gets most climate science right, but has been alarmist in his prediction about how soon the Arctic will be ice-free”, is a bit strange to me. Wadhams is an expert in his field and those predictions were made from his understanding of the science, but were horribly wrong in retrospect. If we assume science makes testable predictions, then there obviously has to be something wrong with Wadhams’ original assumption(s). Otherwise there would have been an ice-free Arctic in 2008-2009 or 2015-2016-2017.

It is all nice and well to claim that Wadhams previous predictions are not in line with the science, but back in 2012 and 2013 when the predictions could not be proven right or wrong yet, skepticalscience was very happy to report on these now called “alarmist” claims as if these were valid, without mentioning that these were over the top or not in line with the science.

For example, in the September 2012 skepticalscience article Do we know when the Arctic will be sea ice-free? the Wadhams’ projection is mentioned (it was even called a “prediction”, not the projection that it actually is) (my emphasis):

Predictions are once again being made about when the Arctic Ocean might be ice-free in summer. There’s quite a range of opinions. For example, Professor Peter Wadhams, ocean physicist at the University of Cambridge, tells the Scotsman:

“The entire ice cover is now on the point of collapse […] It is truly the case that it will be all gone by 2015.”

Then follow some other sources that predicted/projected/suggested an ice-free Arctic in “this decade” or in the “next decades”. The article ends with (my emphasis):

Overall, this Reuters headline probably offers the best summary of the state of scientific opinion:

Arctic summer sea ice might thaw by 2015 – or linger for decades”

No attempts were made to clarify that the Wadhams’ claim is alarmist and is misinformation. On the contrary, his “prediction” is presented as a valid possibility at the time.

Something similar in the 2013 SkS Weekly News Roundup #6 linking to a post about this projection (my emphasis):

A baffling response to Arctic climate change

The Arctic may seem like a distant place, just as the most extreme consequences of our wasteful use of fossil fuels may appear to be in some distant future. Both are closer than most of us realize.

The Arctic is a focal point for some of the most profound impacts of climate change. One of the world’s top ice experts, Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University, calls the situation a “global disaster,” suggesting ice is disappearing faster than predicted and could be gone within as few as four years.

A baffling response to Arctic climate change by David Suzuki, The Brantford Expositor, Feb 3, 2013

Again, the reader is not given a single clue that this projection in this article they linked to, is misinformation. Those who read it in 2013 and followed that link may have wrongly conclude that this projection of an ice-free Arctic in 2015 is a perfectly valid claim.

Basically, when the projection could not be tested against reality, this claims was apparently used to confirm the severity of the situation, yet is now conveniently dismissed as “misinformation”.

4 thoughts on ““Genuine climate alarmists” spreading misinformation?

  1. manicbeancounter

    Michel,
    Thanks for the post. It has helped clarify an issue in my own mind.

    What is meant by misinformation?

    From the Oxford Dictionaries misinformation is defined as

    false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive.

    False or inaccurate is relative to true or accurate. What makes misinformation pernicious is the intention to deceive. The determination of something as misinformation therefore both requires the accuser to show that it is false and inaccurate and to show that those perpetrating it knowing that it is false and inaccurate. What is clear from this definition is that misinformation is not due to differences of opinion.

    An alternative definition

    Do people keep believing because they want to? Preexisting attitudes and the continued influence of misinformation. Ecker UK, Lewandowsky S, Fenton O, Martin K. DOI: 10.3758/s13421-013-0358-x

    They start

    Misinformation—defined as information that is initially believed to be valid but is subsequently retracted or corrected — has an ongoing impact on people’s memory and inferential reasoning, even after unambiguous and clear retractions.

    Whereas the dictionary defines misinformation as existing independently of whether it is identified as such, in this definition information only becomes misinformation when there is a retraction or correction. For this to work you need “experts” to evaluate. “Misinformation” is in relation to opinions of the group who collectively control the organs of evaluation, with “truth” and “accuracy” bit-part players.
    Wadhams’ failed predictions may meet the dictionary definition of misinformation. He is not just continually failing in his predictions, but also fails to learn from them. But is their intent to deceive, or just a lack of understanding of scientific methods in complex subjects coupled with a strong belief in climate alarmism? From more traditional and rigorous scientific approaches it does not matter. If the predictions fail, then you either modify your conjectures on which the predictions were formulated in the light of the real world data, or you embrace pseudo-science. Under the modern academic definition of misinformation, if the perception of the natural world disagrees with consensus opinion then those perceptions are in denial of that consensus.

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    1. trustyetverify Post author

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the definition of “misinformation”. It is an interesting subject.

      I also often wonder what their definition of “misinformation” is. Cook and Lewandowky used several definitions of “misinformation”, like for example:

      Debunking handbook
      Cook & Lewandowsky, 2011
      https://www.skepticalscience.com/docs/Debunking_Handbook.pdf

      any information that people have acquired that turns out to be incorrect, irrespective of why and how that information was acquired in the first place

      Neutralizing misinformation through inoculation
      Cook, Lewandowsky and Ecker, 2017
      http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0175799

      Misinformation, that is, information that people accept as true despite it being false

      Both don’t have the deception part in it (the first definition states this explicitly, the second doesn’t mention it).

      The perspective is different: in the first definition, information is only misinformation if it is incorrect, regardless of the person acquiring it (it is not misinformation if it is correct, obviously). In the second definition, information is only misinformation if someone accepted it as true while being false (according to the definition, it is not misinformation if the person accepts the information to be false).

      So, whether information is misinformation or not depends on the information itself (the first definition) or on the person who is subjected to the information (second definition).

      The definition you found is interesting. I didn’t read that paper, probably it is something very specific that they investigated, for example related to the effects of retracted and/or corrected papers, articles or other media? Otherwise that definition would not make much sense.

      I wonder how many definitions they actually used over time, whether it changed in the meanwhile and how one should understand the conclusion of those papers (knowing the definition they used).

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  2. manicbeancounter

    Michel,
    You give a very thoughtful reply, and have helped clarify my own thoughts.
    Between us we have obtained three different definitions of “misinformation” from Lewandowsky, Cook, Ecker (and others), none of which agree to the dictionary definition. Definitions appear to be fluid, depending on the circumstances. I could also point to the definitions of “skeptical” and “science” which, in John Cook’s terms, are quite different from those in either the dictionary or (in the case of science) quite different from the thoughts of mainstream philosophers of science from Aristotle to the present day. See the Stanford University’s 11,000 word essay on on the subject of scientific method.
    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-method/
    But Lewandowsky and Cook also give preference to consensus opinion over observations of the natural world. Take decline in the Arctic sea ice. The consensus opinion is that AGW will cause sea to decline. It has declined, so the consensus is correct? A more scientific perspective would ask what distinguishes the sea ice decline from random variations. One way to distinguish genuine science from pseudo-science is to make predictions that demarcate the distinctive features of theory from background noise. If true, then this verifies the theory. Peter Wadhams, has made predictions numerous occasions in relation to sea ice decline and failed. A more objective scientist would learn from this failures and either modify the theory, or admit is wrong. At a minimum they should stop promoting the theory.

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