Cook’s 97% Climate Consensus Paper Doesn’t Crumble Upon Examination

97_piechart_smallSeveral months ago Cook et al released a paper in which they analysed the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

What they did in that study is examine 11,944 abstracts from 1991 to 2011 that included the words “global climate change” or “global warming” in their abstract. What they found after analysing these abstracts is that among those that expressed a position on global warming, 97% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming.

When they asked the authors of those papers to rate their own papers they again found that 97% stated that humans are causing global warming. They also contacted 8,547 authors to ask if they could rate their own papers and got 1,200 responses. The results for this again found that 97% of the selected papers stated that humans are causing global warming. They did this to determine that there wasn’t any sort of inherent problem in their rating system and this seems to indicate that.

For anyone who is aware of other studies that did something similar these results weren’t a surprise. As studies like Oreskes 2004Doran 2009 and Anderegg 2010 showed similar results. It’s the very reason I just shrugged at these results and mostly watched everything play out from a distance. To me they just didn’t seem that interesting, or that they would generate a lot of controversy.

Boy was I wrong.

The paper seemed to have struck a nerve among so-called sceptics and climate science deniers. Almost immediately a counter campaign was started to discredit this paper and a lot of accusations were thrown at the authors.

For example there were accusations that “sceptics” were included among the papers that stated that humans are causing global warming, but they weren’t (Roy Spencer was someone who made this claim). And many more were made, far too many to list here. But the bulk of what I’ve seen so far were speculations on flawed methodology and accusing the authors of having a bias and/or an agenda.

Because of all that one of the co-authors, Dana Nuccitelli, wrote a blog post putting some of the criticism in context; showing that they didn’t have merit. To this day he’s still addressing criticism towards this paper, most of it just puzzles me why they are made.

For example yesterday Anthony Watts again attacked this paper on his blog Watts Up With That (WUWT). The blog posts starts with a copy of what Bjørn Lomborg wrote about the Cook et al. paper on facebook. It repeats a lot of the already addressed criticisms towards the authors, which we already know have no merit. There were a few new details in there but Wotts has already talked about those.

But what really triggered me to write all this was the letter from Richard Tol that was printed in full in that blog post. A lot of accusations are made in that letter towards the authors but it mostly boils down to the claim that data is hidden. And that this hidden data is needed to verify that the results of the study are valid. With a good dash of speculation and other accusations towards the authors of the paper.

However, there’s a problem with the accusation that data is hidden. How the abstracts were rated and how results were analysed are available in the paper. Also all the data you need to replicate the results are available. You can download it from the very same page this paper is hosted on (it’s linked under supplementary data).

It gives you everything you need to see if there are problems in the methodology they used or if they for example incorrectly rated papers. Any serious problems in Cook et al. paper will be detected if you use that data and see if you can replicate the results.

But Tol isn’t doing that. He wants every little piece of data no matter how irrelevant it is to checking if the results they got are correct. And if it isn’t given for whatever reason he accuses the authors of hiding data and speculates on the motives as to why this might be.

Many, including me, have pointed out to Tol that he has everything he needs to check if the results are valid. And that so far there isn’t any real indication in the Cook et al. paper that it’s fundamentally flawed. One of the biggest hints that it isn’t flawed are the results for authors rating their own papers. This part gave almost the same results, and it showed that the Cook et al. paper was conservative in its rating. Meaning that the ratings for the abstracts tended to er towards being neutral or rejecting that humans were the cause of global warming.

To me it looks like that Tol has a problem with the conclusions in the Cook et al paper. Not because he’s seeing a legitimate problem in the data, survey, methodology or criteria; as he’s still looking for those. It just seems he doesn’t like the conclusions.

With him looking for problems in the data without actually verifying if the conclusions are correct this is jut a game of gotcha. One that is played out on blogs and social media, not in the scientific literature where normally critiquing a paper takes place. But it isn’t because Tol hasn’t tried to publish his criticism as a response to this paper. He did, but it was rejected.

I truly don’t understand why Tol is going after this paper, often quite viciously. But I do understand why climate science deniers like watts do this.

This paper gives a result that is easy to communicate to the public, and also very easy to understand. Which is probably the reason why this paper has struck a nerve among climate science deniers.

Simply because this whole public “debate” isn’t about the science, it’s about winning the public communication campaign in an attempt to prevent or delay action. And as soon as you have something that is easily communicated like the results from the Cook et al paper everything is done to discredit the research. No matter if it is valid criticism or not.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.