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


Supran and Oreskes on ExxonMobils Communication of Climate Change

Over at Cliscep, Geoff Chambers gave a rather bitter review (with foul language) about a new paper, Assessing ExxonMobil’s Climate Change Communications (1977–2014) by Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes.
One point that I would like to explore is part of a quote Geoff uses:-

The issue at stake is whether the corporation misled consumers, shareholders and/or the general public by making public statements that cast doubt on climate science and its implications, and which were at odds with available scientific information and with what the company knew. We stress that the question is not whether ExxonMobil ‘suppressed climate change research,’ but rather how they communicated about it.

It is the communication of climate science by a very powerful oil company, that the paper concentrates upon. The approach reveals a lot about the Climate Change movement as well. In particular, this statement in the introduction:-

Research has shown that four key points of understanding about AGW—that it is real, human-caused, serious, and solvable—are important predictors of the public’s perceived issue seriousness, affective issue involvement, support for climate policies, and political activism [62–66].

The references are as follows

[62] Krosnick J A, Holbrook A L, Lowe L and Visser P S 2006 The origins and consequences of democratic citizens’ policy agendas: a study of popular concern about global warming Clim. Change 77 7–43
[63] Ding D, Maibach E W, Zhao X, Roser-Renouf C and Leiserowitz A 2011 Support for climate policy and societal action are linked to perceptions about scientific agreement Nat. Clim. Change 1 462–6
[64] Roser-Renouf C, Maibach E W, Leiserowitz A and Zhao X 2014 The genesis of climate change activism: from key beliefs to political action Clim. Change 125 163–78
[65] Roser-Renouf C, Atkinson L, Maibach E and Leiserowitz A 2016 The consumer as climate activist Int. J. Commun. 10 4759–83
[66] van der Linden S L, Leiserowitz A A, Feinberg G D and Maibach E W 2015 The scientific consensus on climate change as a gateway belief: experimental evidence PLoS One 10 e0118489

For the purposes of Supran and Oreskes study, the understanding that people have does not require any substance at all beyond beliefs. For instance, the Jehovah Witness Sect developing an “understanding” that Armageddon would occur in 1975. This certainly affected their activities in the lead up to the momentous history-ending event. Non-believers or members of the Christian Church may have been a little worried, shrugged their shoulders, or thought the whole idea ridiculous. If similar studies to those on climate activism had been conducted on the prophecy of Armageddon 1975, similar results could have been found to those quoted for AGW beliefs in references 62-66. That is, the stronger the belief in the cause, whether religious evangelism in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, or ideological environmentalism in the case of AGW, is a predictor of activism in support of the cause. They cannot go further because of an issue with scholarly articles. Claims made must be substantiated, something that cannot be done with respect to the prophesies of climate catastrophism, except in a highly nuanced form.
But the statement that AGW is “real, human-caused, serious, and solvable” – repeated five times in the article – indicates something about the activists understanding of complex issues.
AGW is real” is not a proper scientific statement, as it is not quantified. Given that the impacts on surface temperatures can muffled and delayed nearly indefinitely by natural factors, or swallowed by the oceans, the belief can be independent of any contrary evidence for decades to come.
AGW is human-caused”, is saying “Human-caused global warming is human-caused”. It is a tautology that tells us nothing about the real world.
AGW is serious” is an opinion. It may be a very widely-held opinion, with many articles written with confirming evidence, and many concerned people attending massive conferences where it is discussed. But without clear evidence for emerging net adverse consequences, the opinion is largely unsubstantiated.
AGW is solvable” could be whether it is theoretically solvable, given the technology and policies being implemented. But the statement also includes whether it is politically solvable, getting actual policies to reduce emissions fully implemented. If the “solution” is the reduction of global emissions to a level commensurate with 2C of warming (hence a partial solution), then COP21 in Paris shows that AGW is a long way from being solvable, with no actual solution in sight. Whereas the 2C limit requires global emissions to be lower in 2030 than in 2015, and falling rapidly, fully implemented policies would still see emissions higher in 2030 than in 2015 and still increasing.

The statement AGW is “real, human-caused, serious, and solvable” is, therefore, nothing more than 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. 

Kevin Marshall