Evidence for the Stupidest Paper Ever

Judith Curry tweeted a few days ago

This is absolutely the stupidest paper I have ever seen published.

What might cause Judith Curry to make such a statement about Internet Blogs, Polar Bears, and Climate-Change Denial by Proxy? Below are some notes that illustrate what might be considered stupidity.

Warmest years are not sufficient evidence of a warming trend

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) both recently reported that 2016 was the warmest year on record (Potter et al. 2016), followed by 2015 and 2014. Currently, 2017 is on track to be the second warmest year after 2016. 

The theory is that rising greenhouse gas levels are leading to warming. The major greenhouse gas is CO2, supposedly accounting for about 75% of the impact. There should, therefore, be a clear relationship between the rising CO2 levels and rising temperatures. The form that the relationship should take is that an accelerating rise in CO2 levels will lead to an accelerating rate of increase in global average temperatures. Earlier this year I graphed the rate of change in CO2 levels from the Mauna Loa data.

The trend over nearly sixty years should be an accelerating trend. Depending on which temperature dataset you use, around the turn of the century warming either stopped or dramatically slowed until 2014. A strong El Nino caused a sharp spike in the last two or three years. The data contradicts the theory in the very period when the signal should be strongest.

Only the stupid would see record global average temperatures (which were rising well before the rise in CO2 was significant) as strong evidence of human influence when a little understanding of theory would show the data contradicts that influence.

Misrepresentation of Consensus Studies

The vast majority of scientists agree that most of the warming since the Industrial Revolution is explained by rising atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations (Doran and Zimmerman 2009, Cook et al. 2013, Stenhouse et al. 2014, Carlton et al 2015, Verheggen et al. 2015), 

Doran and Zimmerman 2009 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?

Believing that human activity is a significant contributing factor to rising global temperatures does not mean one believes the majority of warming is due to rising GHG concentrations. Only the stupid would fail to see the difference. Further, the results were a subset of all scientists, namely geoscientists. The reported 97% consensus was from a just 79 responses, a small subset of the total 3146 responses. Read the original to find out why.

The abstract to Cook et al. 2013 begins

We analyze the evolution of the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, examining 11 944 climate abstracts from 1991–2011 matching the topics ‘global climate change’ or ‘global warming’. We find that 66.4% of abstracts expressed no position on AGW, 32.6% endorsed AGW, 0.7% rejected AGW and 0.3% were uncertain about the cause of global warming. Among abstracts expressing a position on AGW, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. 

Expressing a position does not mean a belief. It could be an assumption. The papers were not necessarily by scientists, but merely authors of academic papers that involved the topics ‘global climate change’ or ‘global warming’. Jose Duarte listed some of the papers that were included in the survey, along with looking at some that were left out. It shows a high level of stupidity to use these flawed surveys as supporting the statement “The vast majority of scientists agree that most of the warming since the Industrial Revolution is explained by rising atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations“.

Belief is not Scientific Evidence

The most recent edition of climate bible from the UNIPCC states (AR5 WG1 Ch10 Page 869)

It is extremely likely that human activities caused more than half of the observed increase in GMST from 1951 to 2010.

Mispresenting surveys about beliefs are necessary because the real world data, even when that data is a deeply flawed statisticdoes not support the belief that “most of the warming since the Industrial Revolution is explained by rising atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations“.  

Even if the survey data supported the statement, the authors are substituting banal statements about beliefs for empirically-based scientific statements. This is the opposite direction to achieving science-based understanding. 

The false Consensus Gap

The article states

This chasm between public opinion and scientific agreement on AGW is now commonly referred to as the consensus gap (Lewandowsky et al. 2013)

Later is stated, in relation to sceptical blogs

Despite the growing evidence in support of AGW, these blogs continue to aggressively deny the causes and/or the projected effects of AGW and to personally attack scientists who publish peer-reviewed research in the field with the aim of fomenting doubt to maintain the consensus gap.

There is no reference that tracks the growing evidence in support of AGW. From WUWT (and other blogs) there has been a lot of debunking of the claims of the signs of climate apocalypse such as

  • Malaria increasing as a result of warming
  • Accelerating polar ice melt / sea level rise
  • Disappearing snows of Kilimanjaro due to warming
  • Kiribati and the Maldives disappearing due to sea level rise
  • Mass species extinction
  • Himalayan glaciers disappearing
  • The surface temperature record being a true and fair estimate of real warming
  • Climate models consistently over-estimating warming

The to the extent that a consensus gap exists it is between the consensus beliefs of the climate alarmist community and actual data. Scientific support from claims about the real world come from conjectures being verified, not by the volume of publications about the subject.

Arctic Sea Ice Decline and threats to Polar Bear Populations

The authors conjecture (with references) with respect to Polar Bears that

Because they can reliably catch their main prey, seals (Stirling and Derocher 2012, Rode et al. 2015), only from the surface of the sea ice, the ongoing decline in the seasonal extent and thickness of their sea-ice habitat (Amstrup et al. 2010, Snape and Forster 2014, Ding et al. 2017) is the most important threat to polar bears’ long-term survival.

That seems plausible enough. Now for the evidence to support the conjecture.

Although the effects of warming on some polar-bear subpopulations are not yet documented and other subpopulations are apparently still faring well, the fundamental relationship between polar-bear welfare and sea-ice availability is well established, and unmitigated AGW assures that all polar bears ultimately will be negatively affected. 

There is a tacit admission that the existing evidence contradicts the theory. There is data showing a declining trend in sea ice for over 35 years, yet in that time the various polar bear populations have been growing significantly, not just “faring well“. Surely there should be a decline by now in the peripheral Arctic areas where the sea ice has disappeared? The only historical evidence of decline is this comment in criticizing Susan Crockford’s work.

For example, when alleging sea ice recovered after 2012, Crockford downplayed the contribution of sea-ice loss to polar-bear population declines in the Beaufort Sea.

There is no reference to this claim, so readers cannot check if the claim is supported. But 2012 was an outlier year, with record lows in the Summer minimum sea ice extent due to unusually fierce storms in August. Losses of polar bears due to random & extreme weather events are not part of any long-term decline in sea ice.

Concluding Comments

The stupid errors made include

  • Making a superficial point from the data to support a conjecture, when deeper understanding contradicts it. This is the case with the conjecture that rising GHG levels are the main cause of recent warming.
  • Clear misrepresentation of opinion surveys.
  • Even if the opinion surveys were correctly interpreted, use of opinion to support scientific conjectures, as opposed looking at statistical tests of actual data or estimates should appear stupid from a scientific perspective.
  • Claims that a consensus gap between consensus and sceptic views when the real gap is between consensus opinion and actual data.
  • Claims that polar bear populations will decline as sea ice declines is contradicted by the historical data. There is no recognition of this contradiction.

I believe Harvey et al paper gives some lessons for climatologists in particular and academics in general.

First is that when making claims crucial to the argument they need to be substantiated. That substantiation needs to be more than referencing others who have said the same claims before.

Second is that points drawn from referenced articles should be accurately represented.

Third, is to recognize that scientific papers need to first reference actual data and estimates, not opinions.  It is by comparing the current opinions with the real world that opportunities for advancement of understanding arise.

Fourth is that any academic discipline should aim to move from conjectures to empirically-based verifiable statements.

I have only picked out some of the more obvious of the stupid points. The question that needs to be asked is why such stupidity should have been agreed upon by 14 academics and then passed peer review?

Kevin Marshall

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  1. Here are some more details about that article by Prof. Peter Doran in 2009, which was the first to claim a “97% consensus” on climate science. Here’s what he did.

    FIRST, Dr. Doran wrote just the two “opinion” questions for his survey that you quoted, both of which were “gimmies,” designed to elicit the answers he wanted. (There were also some demographic & background questions.)

    The survey PRETENDED to be an attempt to learn about scientists’ opinions, but it wasn’t. Neither question was designed to actually learn anything about scientists’ opinions. Both of the questions were so uncontroversial that even I, and most other skeptics of climate alarmism (a/k/a “climate realists” or “lukewarmers”) would have given the answers he wanted.

    SECOND, Doran had his graduate student send the survey to over 10,000 geophysical scientists, but ONLY to people working in academia or government — known bastions of left-of-center politics. Scientists working in private industry, who tend to be more conservative, were not surveyed. That biased the sample, because the climate debate is highly politicized: most conservatives “lean skeptical” and most liberals “lean alarmist” in the climate debate.

    They got 3,146 responses.

    THIRD, to calculate his supposed “consensus” Prof. Doran excluded all but the most biased respondents: the most specialized specialists in climate science.

    That’s a massive, fundamental blunder. That’s like asking ONLY homeopaths about the efficacy of homeopathy, rather than the broader medical community. It’s like asking ONLY people working on cold fusion about whether cold fusion works, rather than asking all physicists.

    That process excluded over 97% of the geophysical scientists who answered the survey! Only 79 were left.

    That’s right: he pruned 3,146 responses down to just 79.

    But even that didn’t get his desired “consensus” figure up to 97%. So,

    FOURTH, to calculate his final “97.4%” result, Doran EXCLUDED respondents who gave one of the “skeptical” answers to the first of his two questions.

    I’m not kidding, he really did.

    The first “gimme” question was:

    “When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?”

    (I would have said “risen.”)

    Those who answered “remained relatively constant” were not asked the 2nd question, and THEY WERE NOT COUNTED when calculating his percentage consensus.

    That left him with just 77 out of 3,146 responses. He used only those 77 for the “97.4%” calculation.

    The second question was:

    “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?”

    Well, of course it is! That encompasses both GHG-driven warming and particulate/aerosol-driven cooling. It could also be understood to include Urban Heat Island (UHI) effects.

    Since just about everyone acknowledges at least one of those effects, I would have expected nearly everyone to answer “yes” to this question. Yet 2 of 77 apparently did not.

    It is unfortunate that Doran and his graduate student didn’t ask an actual, legitimate question about Anthropogenic Global Warming. They should have asked something like, “Do you believe that emissions of CO2 from human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, are causing dangerous increases in global average temperatures?” or (paraphrasing President Obama) “Do you believe that climate change is real, man-made and dangerous?”

    Of course, the reason Doran didn’t ask “real” questions like those is that his survey was a scam: Its purpose was NOT to discover anything, it was to support a propaganda talking point.

    BTW, the survey was was the thesis project of Prof. Doran’s graduate student, Ms. Zimmerman. I bought a copy of her thesis project report, so if you (or anyone else) have any questions about it let me know. My contact info can be found on my SeaLevel.info web site.

    You can find much more information about the various surveys of scientific opinion on climate change, including source references for everything I’ve written here, on this web page:


    • manicbeancounter

       /  03/12/2017

      Thanks Dave for the extra background. No competent academic would cite such a survey, let alone grossly misrepresent its findings.
      Thanks for the link above. Strengers, Verheggen & Vringer, 2015 should have been the survey cited. As you wrote.

      Their first question asked to what extent human greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for the Earth’s warming trend since the mid-20th century. They found that 65.9% of the respondents believe that human GHG emissions are responsible for at least 51% of the warming trend since the mid-20th century.

      This seems to support both the authors’ claims (barring the fact that it is from the mid-20th century not from circa 1800), but they chose not to use it.
      I have also looked up Carlton et al 2015. The abstract states

      Here we report on a survey of biophysical scientists across disciplines at universities in the Big 10 Conference. Most respondents(93.6%) believe that mean temperatures have risen and most(91.9%) believe in an anthropogenic contribution to rising temperatures. Respondents strongly believe that climate science is credible (mean credibility score 6.67/7)

      Basically Doran and Zimmerman questions.

      The Verheggen et al 2015 is Scientists’ views about attribution of global warming.
      This is the nearest but does not quite fit the bill. I will take it up in a later post.


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