One problem in arguments about climate (and many other things) is that most of the information is obtained at second, third, or fourth hand, with the result that what you believe depends largely on what sources of information you trust. One result is that people on either side of the argument can honestly believe that the evidence strongly supports their view. They trust different sources; different sources report different evidence. It is thus particularly interesting when on some point, even a fairly minor one, you can actually check a claim for yourself. I believe I have found an example of such a claim.
Cook et. al. (2013)
is the paper, possibly one of two papers, on which the often repeated claim that 97% of climate scientists support global warming is based. Legates et. al. (2013)
is a paper which criticizes Cook et. al. (2013). Bedford and Cook (2013)
is a response to Legates et. al. All three papers (the last a pre-publication version) are webbed, although Legates et. al. is unfortunately behind a pay wall.
Bedford and Cook (2013) contains the following sentence: "Cook et al. (2013) found that over 97% endorsed the view that the Earth is warming up and human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause."
To check that claim, look at Cook et. al. 2013
. Table 2 shows three categories of endorsement of global warming reflected in the abstracts of articles. Category 1, explicit endorsement with quantification, is described as "Explicitly states that humans are the primary cause of recent global warming." Category 2 is explicit endorsement without quantification. The description, "Explicitly states humans are causing global warming or refers to anthropogenic global warming/climate change as a known fact" is ambiguous, since neither "causing" nor "anthropogenic global warming" specifies how large a part of warming humans are responsible for. But the example for the category is clearer: 'Emissions of a broad range of greenhouse gases of varying lifetimes contribute to global climate change.' If human action produces ten percent of warming, it contributes to it, hence category 2, as implied by its label, does not specify how large a fraction of the warming humans are responsible for. Category 3, implicit endorsement, again uses the ambiguous "are causing," but the example is '...carbon sequestration in soil is important for mitigating global climate change,' which again would be consistent with holding that CO2 was responsible for some but less than half of the warming. It follows that only papers in category 1 imply that "human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause." Authors of papers in categories 2 and 3 might believe that, they might believe that human emissions of greenhouse gases were one cause among several.
Reading down in Cook et. al., we find "To simplify the analysis, ratings were consolidated into three groups: endorsements (including implicit and explicit; categories 1–3 in table 2)." It is that combined group, ("endorse AGW" on Table 4) that the 97.1% figure refers to. Hence that is the number of papers that, according to Cook et. al., implied that humans at least contribute to global warming. The number that imply that humans are the primary cause (category 1) is some smaller percentage which Cook et. al. do not report.
It follows that the sentence I quoted from Bedford and Cook is false. Cook et. al. did not find that "over 97% endorsed the view that the Earth is warming up and human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause." (emphasis mine). Any interested reader can check that it is false by simply comparing the two papers of which Cook is a co-author. John Cook surely knows the contents of his own paper. Hence the sentence in question is a deliberate lie.
That Cook misrepresents the result of his own research does not tell us whether AGW or CAGW is true. It does not tell us if it is true that most climate scientists endorse AGW or CAGW. It is nonetheless interesting, for two related reasons.
In recent online exchanges on climate, I repeatedly encountered the claim that 97% of climate scientists believed humans were the main cause of global warming. That included an exchange with one of the very few reasonable and civil supporters of the CAGW claim that I encountered in the online arguments, where most participants on either side are neither. So far as I know, the paper says nothing that is not true. But it appears designed to encourage the misreading that actually occurred. It does so by lumping together categories 1-3 and reporting only the sum and by repeatedly referring to "the consensus" but never stating clearly what that consensus is.
The closest it came to defining the consensus is as the "position that humans are causing global warming," which leaves it unclear whether "causing" means "are one cause of," "are the chief cause of," or "are the sole cause of." To discover that it meant only the former, a reader had to pay sufficiently careful attention to the details of the paper to notice "contribute to" in the example of category 2 in Table 2, which few readers would do. The fact that Cook chose, in a second paper, to misrepresent the result of the first is pretty good evidence that the presentation of his results was deliberately designed to mislead.
There is a second, and more important, reason why all of this matters. Beliefs on either side depend largely on what sources of information you trust. I have now provided unambiguous evidence, evidence that anyone on either side willing to carefully read Cook (2013) and check what it says against what Bedford and Cook claims it says can verify for himself, that John Cook cannot be trusted. The blog Skeptical Science lists John Cook as its maintainer, hence all
claims on that blog ought to be viewed with suspicion and accepted only
if independently verified. Since, as a prominent supporter of the position that warming is primarily due to humans and a very serious threat, Cook is taken seriously and quoted by other supporters of that position, one should reduce one's trust in those others as well. Either they too are dishonest or they are over willing to believe false claims that support their position.
The fact that one prominent supporter of a position is dishonest does not prove that the position is wrong. For all I know, there may be people on the other side who could be shown to be dishonest by a similar analysis. But it is a reason why those who support that side because they trust its proponents to tell them the truth should be at least somewhat less willing to do so.
P.S. A commenter has located the data file
for Cook et. al. (2013). By his count, the number of articles classified into each category was:
Level 1 = 64
Level 2 = 922
Level 3 = 2910
Level 4 = 7970
Level 5 = 54
Level 6 = 15
Level 7 = 9
The 97% figure was the sum of levels 1-3. Assuming the count is correct—readers can check it for themselves—that 97% breaks down as:
Level 1: 1.6%
Level 2: 23%
Level 3: 72%
Only Level 1 corresponds to "the Earth is warming up and human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main
cause." (emphasis mine) Hence when John Cook attributed that view to 97% on the basis of his Cook et. al. (2013) he was misrepresenting 1.6% as 97%. Adding up his categories 5-7, the levels of rejecting of AGW, we find that more papers explicitly or implicitly rejected the claim that human action was responsible for half or more of warming than accepted it. According to Cook's own data.
Would anybody now like to claim that lumping levels 1, 2, and 3 together and only reporting the sum was not a deliberate attempt to mislead?
P.S. John Cook eventually responded to my criticism, not here but on the comment thread of another blog that linked to this one. See his response and my comments on it here.