Tag Archives: Cook

The pitfall of Cook’s “simple” six-step critical thinking process

There is this statement in the introduction of the Cook et al 2018 paper that caught my eye:

This paper introduces key critical thinking concepts and outlines a straightforward process for identifying reasoning errors that allows for people who lack expertise in climate science to confidently reject certain denialist arguments.

In a way, I can understand what they are trying to do. Just before I started blogging, now five years ago, I had the idea to look somewhat deeper into logical fallacies. At that time I wasn’t familiar with the global warming debate and it was my hope that I could find a fast and easy way to differentiate between right arguments and wrong arguments, without having to put much effort in studying the topic. However, it didn’t take very long before I realized that for some type of fallacies this would be perfectly possible, but not for most. If I wanted to know right from wrong, then I had to dive in the arguments themselves.

So although I think that their effort is praiseworthy, in practice it is not black & white. My conclusion back then was that when one wants to confidently confirm or reject an argument, then one needs to get messy and go to the source and understand what the argument is all about. I would certainly not put my bet on the knowledge of logical fallacies alone. Without some background, it could lead to possible misinterpretations.

This became rather clear in the page on the SkepticalScience website that was devoted to the Cook et al paper. The post is titled Humans need to become smarter thinkers to beat climate denial and John Cook is a co-author. At the beginning of the post, they basically repeat the statement from the paper in a slightly different wording:

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Define “AGW”

Spread over the Cook et al 2018 paper are the terms “anthropogenic climate change” and “anthropogenic global warming”. It is also mentioned a in table S2 of the supplementary material. I assume that “anthropogenic global warming” means that global temperatures are rising and humans have an impact. This seems to be supported by the consensus claim from the paper (my emphasis):

There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming (Cook et al 2016), with a number of studies converging on 97% agreement among publishing climate scientists or relevant climate papers (Doran and Zimmerman 2009, Anderegg et al 2010, Cook et al 2013, Carlton et al 2015).

That is a far cry from the previous statement in the Alice in Wonderland paper. In that paper, the claim was made that there is a consensus that global warming “presents a global problem”. A claim that obviously was unsupported by the papers that were referenced.

At least he skipped the “dangerous” part of the claim. It is now in line with what the referenced papers researched. As explained in the link above, the referenced papers investigated the claim that global temperatures are rising and that humans have an influence in this. Not whether it is dangerous. Not whether something should be done about it.

However, I don’t think that the term “AGW” is used in this way in the paper. This sentence in the abstract makes me think that he means something different (my emphasis):

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Learning critical thinking by following uncritically

When I read the new Cook et al 2018 paper for the first time, the one thing that stood out was that the example arguments were simplified versions of skeptical arguments, stripped down of any nuance and context, therefor not representative anymore. I already foresaw many posts in my future about these fabrications…

In the meanwhile I found the discussion of Barry Woods on Twitter, tirelessly calling out the many misrepresentations in the paper. The reaction of some of his opponents, that this doesn’t matter because the compiled arguments are fallacious anyway, puzzled me. I couldn’t grasp that they were just okay with:

  • The authors (or Cook and the SkS team) coming up with simplified, unnuanced arguments based on what they think their opponents believe
  • then Cook et al show that these simplified, unnuanced arguments are logically fallacious
  • thus providing proof that their opponents are wrong and therefor should be safely ignored when it comes to those issues.

That is about as close as one can get to a straw man argument. For those who are not familiar with this type of fallacy, according to wikipedia the definition of a straw man argument is (my emphasis):

A straw man is a common form of argument and is an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not presented by that opponent.

The examples Cook et al used were textbook examples of this type of argument, but the defenders of the paper were undeterred by it or maybe did not understand the concept. It seemed to shed of them like water off a duck’s back. I couldn’t really understand that, given that it is pretty clear for everybody to see.

Until I found following tweet:

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Video abstract of the Cook et al 2018 paper: nice idea, but low on substance

In the beginning of this month, the new paper of Cook et al (John Cook et al 2018 Environ. Res. Lett. 13 024018) was published. I was quite busy around that time, so it was only when I was finalizing my last post that I suddenly realized that I didn’t have a look at it yet. Time to finally read that paper.

The paper is titled “Deconstructing climate misinformation to identify reasoning errors” and there is also a video abstract in which the approach of the paper is explained in very simple terms. Although I am not that keen on watching videos, I gave it a try.

Screenshot of the abstract video Cook et al 2018 paper

Having read the paper in the meanwhile, the video illustrates perfectly the strength and the weakness of the paper.

Let us first look how the story goes.

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Inflating peer-review

In the presentation to the public of the findings of the Cook survey in The Consensus Project, we already saw the consensus being inflated well beyond what was actually surveyed. This post will focus in on the small piece of text in which the peer-review process is explained to the public.

theconsensusproject peer-review

As text (emphasis by the authors):

What is peer-reviewed, and why is it important? When a paper has been peer-reviewed, that means it has been evaluated by a number of qualified scientists and found to have followed legitimate scientific methods.

When seeing it explained like this, the peer-review process seems to be quite overrated. As far as I know the peer-review process is more like a quality control. Some peers looked at the paper and they found it okay to publish. That a paper has been peer-reviewed doesn’t mean it is necessarily true.

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Inflating the consensus even more

As seen in previous post, the statements to describe the consensus in The Consensus Project were actually not very truthful. The suggestion was that the queried scientific papers concluded that global warming is a reality and direct result of our actions. This was not the case. Only few paper investigated the physics and most of the papers started from the assumption that global warming is a reality. That is something different altogether.

There also was the suggestion that the authors investigated “climate papers”, which was not the case. They investigated papers with the terms “global warming” and “global climate change” somewhere in the title and/or the abstract. A lot of papers weren’t even about climate research at all.

Therefor I called it inflating the consensus. They presented their case well beyond the scope of their paper (and also previous papers).

Today’s post will be about another aspect of misdirection. The two statements on that page:

Every year, more and more peer-reviewed scientific papers have concluded that global warming is a reality, and a direct result of our actions.

and

97% of published climate papers with a position on human-caused global warming agree: Global warming is happening – and we are the cause.

could be interpreted in more than one way. When we just look at the words, it could be understood whether the papers endorse a warming and to what extent humans were considered the cause. But this statement is not used in such a neutral way. If we look at the bottom of the page we see a link to “About the solutions”.

The Consensus Project overview

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Inflating the consensus

After the Cook presentation a month ago, I thought it would be interesting to see how his ideas were presented to the public. So I went back to the website of the The Consensus Project. This is how the consensus is explained:

the consensus project: about the consensus

Let’s start with the three statements in the top left part of the image:

The consensus of evidence

EVERY YEAR, more and more peer-reviewed scientific papers have concluded that global warming is a reality, and a direct result of our actions.

MEANWHILE, the number of papers that disagree have remained tiny by comparison.

The implication seems rather clear: when we have so much papers in evidence of global warming and so little papers that disagree, believing the statement would be a no-brainer for the public. But not everything is what it seems. There are so many things in those few sentences that don’t fit.

The fact that many scientist have this opinion, doesn’t mean that it is automatically true. If history learns us something it is that scientists agree on many things in the past and this consensus position was wrong afterwards. To be honest, it is not automatically false either. As far as I know science is about which idea is right, not which idea is the most popular.

The point is: how meaningful are these statements? And is this an honest representation of what was found in their study?

For example: it is not true that the scientific papers queried in the Cook survey concluded that global warming is a reality. Most of them weren’t even about the science of global warming, let alone about the evidence of global warming, but they were based just on the assumption that climate change is real and started their research from there.

Big difference.

So I am not really sure where that The consensus of “evidence” comes from. Some categories like Impacts were not about the evidence, but anthropogenic global warming was their starting point, not their conclusion. Unless you call for example The Denial Of Climate Change Among Conservative White Males In The United States an example of the evidence that proves global warming.

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