Today I wasted $15. I had seen this tweet by Skeptical Science team member Andy Skuce:
— Andy Skuce (@andyskuce) September 20, 2016
So naturally, I took a look at the paper he's promoting. The paper begins with two quotes:
“CO2CO2 keeps our planet warm ....”
— Ian Plimer, Australian climate “skeptic”, Heaven & Earth, p. 411
“Temperature and CO2CO2 are not connected.”
— Ian Plimer, Australian climate “skeptic”, Heaven & Earth, p. 278
It makes hay of how these two quotes are contradictory and a perfect example of how "contrarians" will believe multiple, contradictory things at the same time. This is a commom meme people like Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook have been trying to spread, and There is history with them using completely bogus "evidence" to make their case.
Given that, I decided to check the quotations for myself. I needn't have bothered though. It turns out the issue here is exactly what you would likely expect. So you don't have to spend $15 yourself, I'll explain.
Before I get to that, I want to take a moment to highlight where this idea came from. The authors of this paper write:
Conversely, a known attribute of conspiracist thought is that it can appear incoherent by conventional evidentiary criteria. To illustrate, when people reject an official account of an event, they may simultaneously believe in mutually contradictory theories—e.g., that Princess Diana was murdered but also faked her own death (Wood et al. 2012). The incoherence does not matter to the person rejecting the official account because it is resolved at a higher level of abstraction; there is an unshakable belief that the official account of an event is wrong.
The paper cited there, Wood et al 2012, is a paper with the lead author Michael Wood. If you were around when I first created this blog, you would have seen a post I wrote showing the correspondence between me and Michael Wood in which I explained why his conclusions were wrong. He... let's say... tried very hard not to understand what I was saying.
You can find an overview of the issue here if you'd like, but for a short version, Wood surveyed a group of people, asking them their views about various conspiracy theories. A number of these conspiracy theories were about Princess Diana's death. Respondents overwhelmingly rejected all the conspiracy theories, as seen in the figure below:
The line in that figure represents the relationship Wood claimed to find in his data. It shows what would happen if the more a person believed Princess Diana was murdered, the more they also believed she was still alive. As you can see, nobody said they believed that. The upper right corner, which represents that combined set of beliefs, is empty. The only "correlation" that exists is people who reject one conspiracy theory were more likely to reject other conspiracy theories. This is akin to asking:
Are you a Cubs fan? No.
Are you an alien? No.
Since people said they are not Cubs fans and they are not aliens, there is a correlation between being an alien and being a Cubs fan. You could plot the responses to these questions and draw a line through it just like with Michael Wood's data.
The mathematical reason for this revolves around how normal correlation tests assume normal distributions and don't work for highly non-linear data sets. The layman's reason for this is you're assuming because people answer multiple questions with "no" that people who answer one question with "yes" will answer the rest of the questions with "yes." Feel free to try that with any set of questions. You'll quickly see why it is nonsensical.
Anyway, the reason I bring that up is I want to highlight why I was skeptical of what this paper had to say about those two quotes. It says:
Similarly, the quotations of Australian climate “skeptic” Ian Plimer at the outset of this article (Plimer 2009) are incoherent. It cannot simultaneously be true that “ CO2 keeps our planet warm ...” and that “Temperature and CO2 are not connected.” We next show that this incoherence suffuses the public posture of climate science denial, suggesting that it cannot lay a strong claim to scientific or intellectual credibility.
Two possibilities occurred to me when I read this: 1) The person who wrote the book those quotes were from is incoherent; 2) The authors of this paper misrepresented these quotes. The only way to check which (if either) of these possibilities is true was to buy the book and see what the quotes actually mean. It turns out the book is pretty bad, and I feel I wasted the $15 spent on it, but buying this book does let us examine the context of those quotes. Here is the first quote in context:
Carbon is more basic to life than sex. You heard it here first! Carbon dioxide is a colourless odourless non-poisonous gas. It is plant food, and it drives the whole food chain. All life is based on and contains carbon. Every cell in every living organism on the planet is based on carbon. Bacteria, algae and plants remove CO2 from the air and water and store it in their tissues. Together with water vapour, CO2 keeps our planet warm such that it is not covered in ice, too hot or devoid of liquid water.
I won't bother explaining why I think this is bad writing as I don't think anyone really cares. The point is the context of the quote shows it says just what John Cook, Stephan Lewandowsky and Elisabeth Lloyd portrayed it as - carbon dioxide helps regulate Earth's temperatures. That would seem to contradict the statement, “Temperature and CO2 are not connected.” However, the context for that statement is:
Ice drilling by the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA) at Concordia Station, Dome C, Antarctica gives another look back in time over some 800,000 years. Eight icehouse-greenhouse cycles were recognised.1414 Antarctic temperatures have been reconstructed1415 as have the CO2, methane and nitrous oxide content.1416,1417 More detailed measurements1418,1419 concentrated on the history of CO2 in ancient air trapped in the ice. Popular paradigms were destroyed. At 800,000 and 650,000 years ago, atmospheric CO2 dropped below 180 ppmv yet temperature was unchanged. Temperature and CO2 are not connected. Furthermore, there was a long-term trend in CO2 which rose by 25 ppmv from 800,000 to 400,000 years ago and then fell by 15 ppmv thereafter. Again, a disconnection between temperature and CO2. Even more intriguing was that the methane levels in trapped air changed from 100,000- to 20,000-year cycles. By contrast, temperature and CO2 showed 100,000-year cycles.
That's quite a bit of text, but the key is this text is discussing specific examples, referencing data for a single region (Antarctica) and time periods in which the author of the book says, "Temperature and CO2 are not connected." If we go a bit further back in the text:
The initial analyses of the Vostok ice core used samples spaced at intervals of hundreds of years. The initial conclusions were that high CO2 in the atmosphere led to high air temperatures. However, with far more detailed measurements on the scale of decades over a 250,000-year ice core record and a correlation of a 35,000-year ice core record from Taylor Dome, it was shown that high air temperatures are followed some 400 to 1000 years later by a high atmospheric CO2 content.1411,1412 More recent work, using argon isotopes in Antarctic ice cores of just one temperature rise, shows that CO2 increased 200 to 800 years after that particular temperature rise.1413 During the last 420,000 years there have been massive temperature changes, and a rise in CO2 concentration follows air temperature increase by about 800 years and it is only after a cooling event that CO2 decreases.
We see the author clearly isn't claiming carbon dioxide levels and the planet's temperature are unrelated to one another. He wrote several paragraphs specifically discussing how the two are related (in his view) for certain cases. All Cook, Lewandowsky and Lloyd have done is take something which was poorly worded out of the context which shows it was a remark about a specific example and portray it as being a general statement that is always true.
If you are willing to take things out of context and portray them as referring to things they clearly aren't referring to, you will always find it easy to paint things as "incoherent." That shouldn't be how "science" works though. Similarly, "science" shouldn't work by asking a bunch of men:
Are you a woman?
Are you a witch?
And concluding that since everyone you asked said, "No" to both questions, men are not witches and women are. Unfortunately, that's exactly how the "science" of this paper is being done. It's not just this paper either. Stephan Lewandowsky relied on this same approach to creating spurious correlations to write multiple papers portraying global warming skeptics are conspiracy nutters. John Cook worked with him on projects arising from this. This sort of bogus methodology is essential for the body of work these people are creating.
Similarly, these people have no problem being dishonest. I don't like accusing people of dishonesty, and I try very hard to think of other potential explanations before accusing people of lying. However, the authors clearly lie in this paper. They write:
Current atmospheric CO2 levels are higher than at any time since at least 2.6 million years ago (Masson-Delmotte et al. 2013, Fig. 5.2), and the consensus position that global warming is happening, is human caused, and presents a global problem is shared by more than 95 % of domain experts and more than 95 % of relevant articles in the peer-reviewed literature (Anderegg et al. 2010; Cook et al. 2013, 2016; Doran and Zimmerman 2009; Oreskes 2004; Shwed and Bearman 2010).
They know fully well the "consensus position" these papers find does not say global warming "presents a global problem." People may recall practically the same exaggeration was used back when John Cook published his first "consensus" paper as he and the rest of the Skeptical Science team promoted the tweet:
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) May 16, 2013
Celebrating how the President of the United States promoted their work even though the tweet wasn't actually written by Barack Obama, but rather, an advocacy group which purports to be independent of Obama and his administration (see here for a discussion of that claim).
As you can see in that tweet, the not-Obama account claimed Cook's paper showed there is a consensus global warming is "dangerous." No such claim exists in the paper. In fact, Cook and his group didn't even look at the issue of whether people believe global warming is dangerous. Despite that, they repeatedly promoted and celebrated the tweet without ever bothering to warn anyone it was inaccurate.
Now, John Cook himself is signing onto a similar exaggeration by publishing a paper which claims his work shows there's a consensus global warming is "a global problem." Given he knows his work shows nothing of the sort, he must know what this new paper says is a lie.
So yeah, at first blush, that's my reaction to this paper. Much of it is repeating old points based upon bogus methodologies the authors continue to defend. Other parts of it are simply the authors going out of their way to find anything which might even look like it supports their preconceived beliefs. Then there's a bit more I still need to spend some time on.
As a final note, please do not take anything I"ve said in this topic as a defense of Ian Plimer, the book he wrote or what the authors of this paper quote him as saying. I am dead-serious when I say This book is terrible. Nobody should listen to Ian Plimer. I've even highlighted gross distortions he's written in books on this site before (I can find a link if people want). The point here is not to defend or justify anything he said. It is simply to show why the "science" of this new paper is... not science.