John Cook warned me: if you attempt to quantify the level of scientific consensus on climate change, you will be fiercely criticized. Most of the counterarguments don’t stand up to scrutiny however. And so it happened.
The latest in this saga is a comment that Richard Tol submitted to ERL, as a response to John Cook’s study in which they found 97% agreement in the scientific literature that global warming is human caused. Tol tries to paint Cook’s 97% as an outlier, but in doing so misrepresents many other studies, including the survey that I undertook with colleagues in 2012. In his comment and his blogpost he shows the following graph:
Richard Tol comes to very different conclusions regarding the level of scientific consensus than the authors of the respective articles themselves (Oreskes, 2004; Anderegg et al., 2010; Doran and Kendall Zimmerman, 2009; Stenhouse et al., 2013; Verheggen et al., 2014). On the one hand, he is using what he calls “complete sample” results, which in many cases are close to meaningless as an estimate of the actual level of agreement in the relevant scientific community (that counts most strongly for Oreskes and Anderegg et al). On the other hand he is using “subsample” results, which in some cases are even more meaningless (the most egregious example of which is the subsample of outspoken contrarians in Verheggen et al).
The type of reanalysis Tol has done, if applied to e.g. evolution, would look somewhat like this:
- Of all evolutionary biology papers in the sample 75% explicitly or implicitly accept the consensus view on evolution. 25% did not take positon on whether evolution is accepted or not. None rejected evolution. Tol would conclude from this that the consensus on evolution is 75%. This number could easily be brought down to 0.5% if you sample all biology papers and count those that take an affirmative position in evolution as a fraction of the whole. This is analogous to how Tol misrepresented Oreskes (2004).
- Let’s ask biologists what they think of evolution, but to get an idea of dissenting views let’s also ask some prominent creationists, e.g. from the Discovery Institute. Never mind that half of them aren’t actually biologists. Surprise, surprise, the level of agreement with evolution in this latter group is very low (the real surprise is that it’s not zero). Now let’s pretend that this is somehow representative of the scientific consensus on evolution, alongside subsamples of actual evolutionary biologists. That would be analogous to how Tol misrepresented the “unconvinced” subsample of Verheggen et al (2014).
Collin Maessen provide an detailed take-down of Richard Tol on his blog, quoting extensively from the scientists whose work was misrepresented by Tol (myself included). The only surveys which are not misrepresented are those by Bray and von Storch (2007; 2010). This is how I am quoted at Collin’s blog RealSkeptic:
Tol selectively quotes results from our survey. We provided results for different subsamples, based on different questions, and based on different types of calculating the level of agreement, in the Supporting Information with our article in ES&T. Because we cast a very wide net with our survey, we argued in our paper that subgroups based on a proxy for expertise (the number of climate related peer reviewed publications) provide the best estimate of the level of scientific consensus. Tol on the other hand presents all subsamples as representative of the scientific consensus, including those respondents who were tagged as “unconvinced”. This group consists to a large extent of signatories of public statements disapproving of mainstream climate science, many of whom are not publishing scientists. For example, some Heartland Institute staffers were also included. It is actually surprising that the level of consensus in this group is larger than 0%. To claim, as Richard Tol does, that the outcome for this subsample is somehow representative of the scientific consensus is entirely nonsensical.
Another issue is that Richard Tol bases the numbers he uses on just one of the two survey questions about the causes of recent climate change, i.e. a form of cherry picking. Moreover, we quantified the consensus as a fraction of those who actually answered the question by providing an estimate of the human greenhouse gas contribution. Tol on the other hand quantifies the consensus as a fraction of all those who were asked the question, including those who didn’t provide such an estimate. We provided a detailed argument for our interpretation in both the ES&T paper and in a recent blogpost.
Tol’s line of reasoning here is similar to his misrepresentation of Oreskes’ results, by taking the number of acceptance papers not just as a fraction of papers that take position, but rather as a fraction of all papers, including those that take no position on current anthropogenic climate change. Obviously, the latter should be excluded from the ratio, unless one is interested in producing an artificially low, but meaningless number.
Some quotes from the other scientists:
Obviously he is taking the 75% number below and misusing it. The point, which the original article made clear, is that we found no scientific dissent in the published literature.
This is by no means a correct or valid interpretation of our results.
Tol’s description omits information in a way that seems designed to suggest—inaccurately—that the consensus among relevant experts is low.
To pull out a few of the less expert groups and give them the same weight as our most expert group is a completely irresponsible use of our data.
You can read their complete quotes at RealSkeptic.
See also this storify of my twitter discussion with Richard Tol.