Did John Cook Lie in His Doctoral Thesis?

I'm growing a bit tired of repeating the same point over and over in regard to the recent paper by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky (that they repeatdly call things contradictions even though they are not), so I decided it would be a good time to take a break and discuss something else that has been bugging me. You guys may remember this tweet:

Which wasn't actually written by Barack Obama or by anyone representing him. The group using his name for the Twitter account is Oragnizing for Action, a non-profit advocacy group which explicitly denies any affiliation with any government. When asked, "Is OFA affiliated in any way with the federal or any other government, or funded with taxpayer dollars," it says, "No."

Combined with the fact the account's profile says:

This account is run by Organizing for Action staff. Tweets from the President are signed -bo.

It should be clear President Obama had nothing to do with this tweet. Despite that, John Cook wrote this in his doctoral thesis:

Consequently, our study received a significant amount of media attention, including a number of tweets by President Obama (Cook, Bedford, & Mandia, 2014).

For today's post, I would like to discuss whether or not this was a lie.

Let's begin by looking at the source John Cook cites for his claim. The paper is included in the thesis, which is quite convenient. This paper says:

One day after the paper’s
release, the paper was promoted on President Obama’s
Twitter account, which features over 31 million followers
(Obama, 2013). This resulted in over 2,650 retweets and
additional media coverage about the tweet (Hannam, 2013).
The paper received global exposure with media coverage
divided by country shown in Figure 2

There are two key things to take from this. First, the paper does not say any tweets came from President Obama. It says "the paper was promoted on President Obama's Twitter account." This does not give a fair or clear depiction of who runs that Twitter account.

Regardless, even this depiction does not support Cook's claim in his thesis. It does not say any tweet came from President Obama, and it certainly doesn't say multiple tweets came from him. The source Cook provides clearly fails to support his claim. This is particularly troubling as Cook was the lead author of that paper. He should be aware of what it says.

Moving on from this, we can check the source Cook, Bedford & Mandia (2014) used for the paper. They give it as:

Obama, B. (13 May 2013) Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree:
#climate change is real, man-made and dangerous. Read more:
http://OFA.BO/gJsdFp [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.
com/BarackObama/status/335089477296988160

That is the same tweet presented at the start of this post. That means the evidence offered to support John Cook's claim there were "a number of tweets by President Obama" shows only a single tweet not posted by President Obama. It is difficult to understand how Cook could be unaware of this. Not only did he write these papers and pick these sources, but this is common knowledge. A few days after this tweet was posted, a member of Cook's Skeptical Science team, Tom Curtis, wrote:

And speaking of blunder's (or errors, anyway), apparently most tweets @BarackObama are not by the President himself. In the profile it says:

"Barack Obama Verified account
@BarackObama
This account is run by Organizing for Action staff. Tweets from the President are signed -bo.

Washington, DC · http://www.barackobama.com"

The Tweet above is not so signed, and so originated with Obama's staff rather than with the President himself.

Pointing out this issue while incorrectly claiming Organizing for Action is part of Obama's staff. Another member of the Skeptical Science team named Bob Lacatena, who also does moderation for their site, responded:

Tom,

As far as I know, this is common knowledge (and common sense). No one expects (or wants) the President of the United States to spend his time tweeting.

At the same time, there is no question that his twitter account follows guidelines and an agenda laid out by himself and his staff, and is under his name, so it is representative of what he would tweet if he had the time. It is for all intents and purposes from him.

Within days of the tweet being posted, people John Cook was in direct contact with were discussing how everyone should know the tweet wasn't actually from President Obama. Lacatena offers an excuse for pretending they were from President Obama himself, but nothing in Cook's thesis even hints at this. Instead, it explicitly states multiple tweets came from President Obama.

About a week after Curtis and Lacatena had the above exchange, a new post was published on their site which included the claim:

President Obama even Tweeted about our results to his 31 million followers.

With nary a peep from Lacatena or Curtis. The claim has since been repeated many times in many different locations by various members of the Skeptical Science group. All of them should know the claim is false as it "is common knowledge." Even if they didn't talk to one another about this, and for some reason neither Curtis nor Lacatena ever mentioned it, plenty of other people have pointed it out.

Now, I could go on and on with examples of people pointing out this tweet clearly did not come from President Obama. I don't think there's any point though. The question here isn't, "Did John Cook somehow never hear or see anything telling him this tweet did not come from President Obama." I don't think anyone would answer that question with, "No."

The question is, did Cook somehow forget this or come to believe the media hype he helped create? I don't know. What I do know is during a speech in Australia President Obama said:

In fact last year I even tweeted one of your studies in my 31, to my 31 million followers on Twitter.

Referencing this tweet he did not send. This raises questions about how he can take credit for a tweet sent by an advocacy group that explicitly denies any affiliation with his administration. The claim is clearly false, yet Obama made it anyway. Did President Obama lie? I assume not. I assume this was either a case of him simply not thinking about what he said, reading a poorly prepared speech written by someone else or at the most extreme, a minor confabulation.

Is it possible something like that happened with John Cook as well? I don't know. I cannot imagine a situation in which Cook could possibly be unaware there were not "a number of tweets by President Obama" promoting his work. I certainly cannot imagine how he'd cite this one tweet in a paper saying his work "was promoted on President Obama’s Twitter account" then turn around and cite that as proof there were "a number of tweets by President Obama."

What I do know is this is a clear and obvious self-aggrandizing error in John Cook's thesis that anyone familiar with the topic would have caught if they had properly reviewed his thesis. All it would have taken is to have checked what his source for the claim says. That much is certain.

What I want to know is, was this an intentional lie? What do you guys think?

19 comments

  1. So, to summarise, we have a tweet that isn't from Obama with a statement which isn't
    supported by the research that it is implicitly referencing. Cook is then happy to
    be enthused (and subsequently cite) the tweet from not-Obama, despite it clearly
    misrepresenting (I don't think even think it can be called overstating) the conclusions
    of his "research". It's difficult to see how someone with integrity could accidentally
    misconstrue events to such a degree. Even if they did, you'd have to question whether
    they possess the cognitive ability to have any useful insight anyway. Neither position
    looks good.

    Would Cook be so imprecise in his published works? (that's a trick question btw).

  2. JonA, the tweet didn't implicitly reference the Cook et al consensus paper. The link in the tweet goes to a news article about that paper. The tweet is clearly referencing the paper.

    That said, you do bring up an important point I left out of this post. The tweet John Cook is so proud of misrepresents his work in an incredibly transparent way. Cook has never corrected it or made any attempt to warn people of the inaccuracy. A number of people on the SKeptical Science team have even scoffed at the idea he should.

    I didn't talk about it in the post as I wanted to focus on the single issue of whether or not this statement is a lie, but it is definitely worth remembering this tweet is untrue and Cook still cites it many times without any warning or correction.

  3. Regardless of who wrote it, Obama considers it as his tweets, written by his group(Organizing for America was originally Obama for America).

  4. MikeN, I'd like to think science doesn't work on the principle of, "A politician said it, therefore it must be true." Unfortunately, shortly after President Obama gave that speech to me, an editor for The Conversation sent me an e-mail acting all huffy about how he hopes that settles matters since I had complained about them reporting that Obama had tweeted to promote the paper. That means at least some journalists do act on that principle.

    Or at least, they do if they like what the politician says.

  5. Canman, of course. And like any politician, the moment OFA caused him embarrassment with one of these tweets, he would distance himself from the account without hesitation.

    Science doesn't work on the whims of politicians, except when it does.

  6. Hoi Polloi, there are similarities, but lying in a dissertation is different in that it is academic misconduct. It could have been grounds for rejecting his application, and in theory, it could be grounds for revoking his PhD.

    I doubt anything would come of it, but in theory, it could. And in fact probably should. Particularly since it is not the only case of arguable misconduct tied to his thesis.

  7. Mike Williams, I sincerely doubt the University of Western Australia would do anything about John Cook's thesis, even if it turned out there were massive amounts of lies/plagiarism in it. The sad reality is the university seems willing to cover for Cook and Lewandowsky. For instance, when I "hacked" Cook's servers by following referral links and accessing publicly accessible URLs, the university claimed to have done forensic analyses of their servers which proved I had hacked them. In reality, no such forensic analysis could have been done as none would ever turn up evidence of a hack (as I didn't hack into anything), and the servers weren't even university servers.

    The university was similarly less than honest in dealing with the ethical complaints over the Recursive Fury paper. I am sure one could find other cases if they cared to. What makes this particularly sad is practically no alumni nor staff have chosen to speak up about anything. I suspect some are grateful that John Cook is leaving so they don't have to deal with his messes in the future though.

  8. I always thought the worst thing about Cook promoting that tweet as an endorsement of his work, was the fact that the idea that it showed scientists had a consensus on "danger" was never in the design of, let alone actually shown by it.

    If there's no downside for promoting your work as having more reach and power than it actually did toward gaining a PhD then I'm not sure why anyone should have any respect for the body that handed out the PhD.

  9. tlitb1, I agree. That the Skeptical Science group promoted this tweet endlessly while never attempting to caution people it was inaccurate is an issue which has troubled me for a long time. Many instances of it have been clearly dishonest.

    That the tweet is then cited in scientific publications without any cautionary note is worrying. That it is then cited in John Cook's dissertation as part of what got him awarded a PhD, with its nature misrepresented in a way which exaggerated his accomplishments, is offensive. I get this isn't a "sexy" story and revolves around a single sentence, but think this is a bigger story/issue than many of the ones that receive a large amount of attention.

    By the way, there's a typo in the first sentence of the main portion of Cook's thesis (after the acknowledgments, etc.). I thought that was amusing.

  10. I can't spot the typo. If it's on a subtle grammatical level my ability isn't up to spotting it 🙂

    BTW I don't know if you ever saw this, FWIW Dana Nuccitelli did once actually concede in a Guardian comment that the Obama tweet was in fact a collective effort and it was mistaken :

    "It's not precisely correct but it didn't concern me. That's a relatively minor mistake and they got it right in a second Tweet soon thereafter. The positive that the presidential Twitter account was tweeting about climate and the expert consensus far outweighed the negative of slightly imprecise language."

  11. Why would Obama get a pass on misrepresenting his own tweets. Surely, he knows which ones he personally writes. Or perhaps he doesn't write any of it. I guess if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor.

  12. David Young, I'm not sure why you think Obama is getting a "pass." As far as I can see, nobody has said it wasn't wrong for him to say that. All people have done is explain how that situation is different from the one highlighted in this post. A politician making a passing remark in one of a hundred plus speeches that was written by other people is simply not comparable to a line by Cook in his dissertation.

  13. I have JonA. And as its comments section shows, "skeptics" generally do a terrible job of making any sort of case. My impression is a number of people like to "hear themselves talk" more than they care to make an effective argument. By this point it would probably be pointless for me to comment there as any well-constructed comment would likely be ignored due to the large amount of noise people have created. We can already see this happening there as a number of good points have been ignored/lost due to the large amount of fluff.

    I do intend to comment there just in case, but I don't think it will matter. Sadly, it seems the best thing a number of people could do to help the "skeptic" cause is to just be quiet until they can write out a coherent argument. That's the only way to prevent things from constantly devolving into pointless partisan sniping.

    But let's be honest, pointless partisan sniping is what a lot of people enjoy.

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