The Inferior Methods in Supran and Oreskes 2017

In the previous post I looked at one aspect of the article Assessing ExxonMobil’s Climate Change Communications (1977–2014) by Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes. I concluded the basis for evaluation of ExxonMobil’s sponsored climate papers – “AGW is real, human-caused, serious, and solvable” –  is a mantra held by people who fail to distinguish between empirical and verifiable statements, tautologies, opinions and public policy that requires some fanciful global political implementation. In this post I look at how the application of that mantra in analyzing journal articles can lead to grossly misleading interpretations.

Under Section 2. Method, in Table 2 the authors lay out their criteria evaluation in terms of how the wording supports (endorses) or doubts elements of the mantra. For AGW is real & human-caused there are quite complex criteria. But for whether it is “serious” and “solvable” they are much more straightforward, and I have reproduced them below.

The acknowledgment or doubt of “AGW as serious” or “AGW as solvable” are in relation to the mantra. That is the only criteria used. Supran and Oreskes would claim that this does not matter. What they are looking at is the positions communicated in the papers relative to the positions expressed by ExxonMobil externally. But there are problems with this methodology in terms of alternative perspectives that are missing.

First is that the underlying quality and clarity of results and relevancy of each paper is ignored. What matters to Supran and Oreskes is the language used.

Second is that ExxonMobil’s papers are not the only research on whether “AGW is real, human-caused, serious, and solvable”. The authors could also take into account the much wider body of papers out there within the broad areas covered by the mantra.

Third, if the totality of the research – whether ExxonMobil’s or the totality of climate research – does not amount to a strong case for anthropogenic global warming being a serious global problem, and nor having a workable solution, why should they promote politicized delusions?

Put this into the context of ExxonMobil – one of the World’s most successful businesses over decades – by applying some of the likely that it would use in assessing a major project or major strategic investment. For instance

  • How good is the evidence that there is a serious problem on a global scale emerging from human GHG emissions?
  • How strong is the evidence that humans have caused the recent warming?
  • Given many years of research, what is the track record of improving the quality and refinement of the output in the climate area?
  • What quality controls and KPIs are in place to enable both internal and external auditors to validate the work?
  • Where projections are made, what checks on the robustness of those projections have been done?
  • Where economic projections are produced, have they been done by competent mainstream economists, what are the assumptions made, and what sensitivity analyses have been done on those assumptions?
  • Does the project potentially harm investors, employees, customers and other stakeholders in the business? Where are the risk assessments of such potential harms, along with the procedures for the reporting and investigation of non-compliances?
  • Does a proposed project risk contravening laws and internal procedures relating to bribery and corruption?
  • Once a project is started, is it possible to amend that project over time or even abandon it should it fail to deliver? What are the contractual clauses that enable project amendment or abandonment and the potential costs of doing so?

Conclusions and further thoughts

Supran and Oreskes evaluate the ExxonMobil articles for AGW and policy in terms of a belief mantra applied to a small subset of the literature on the subject. Each article is looked at independently of from all other articles and indeed all other available information. Further any legitimate argument or evidence that undermines the mantra is evidence of doubt. It is all throwing the onus on ExxonMobil to disprove the allegations, but never for Supran and Oreskes justify their mantra or their method of analysis is valid.

There are some questions arising from this, that I hope to pursue in later posts.

1. Is the method of analysis just a means of exposing ExxonMobil’s supposed hypocrisy by statistical means, or does it stem from a deeply flawed and ideological way of perceiving the world, that includes trying to shut out the wider realities of the real world, basic logic and other competing (and possibly superior) perspectives?

2. Whatever spread of misinformation and general hypocrisy might be shown on the part of ExxonMobil from more objective and professional perspectives, is there not greater misinformation sown by the promoters of the “climate consensus“?

3. Can any part of the mantra “AGW is real, human-caused, serious, and solvable” be shown to be false in the real world, beyond reasonable doubt?

Kevin Marshall


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