How to Turn Consensus Into Doubt

The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 10 2013 8:00 AM

The Heartland Institute and the American Meteorological Society

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Fire photo by peasap on Flickr; Earth photo by NASA; composite by Phil Plait.

Well, the Heartland Institute is at it again. This fossil fuel–funded (and tobacco company–funded) group has made quite the name for itself in the climate change denial game, from trumpeting the false controversy over Climategate to comparing climate scientists to mass murders to misrepresenting the actions of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (which was so egregious the CAS issued a statement against Heartland that used the word false four times).

Heartland’s latest salvo involves an email they sent out about meteorologists and climate change. A paper (a legitimate one, I’ll note) was recently published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society called “Meteorologists’ Views About Global Warming: A Survey of American Meteorological Society Professional Members.” The paper’s conclusions show that AMS members who study the climate overwhelmingly support the idea that global warming is real and humans have at least contributed to it.

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They’re pretty clear about it, too: The very first paragraph of the discussion section of the paper states (emphasis mine):

93% of actively publishing climate scientists indicated they are convinced that humans have contributed to global warming. Our findings also revealed that majorities of experts view human activity as the primary cause of recent climate change: 78% of climate experts actively publishing on climate change, 73% of all people actively publishing on climate change, and 62% of active publishers who mostly do not publish on climate change. These results, together with those of other similar studies, suggest high levels of expert consensus about human-caused climate change.

Yikes. That’s pretty cut and dried, isn’t it?

Well, apparently not to the folks at the Heartland Institute. They sent out an email about the paper and survey that comes to a different conclusion. Climate scientist Michael Mann put a shot of it up Twitter:

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The Heartland Institute email, captured by Dr. Michael Mann on Twitter.

Screenshot via Twitter

Interesting, isn’t it? There are two things I'd like to point out:

1) It claims that 52 percent of AMS members believe global warming is real and human-induced, and 48 percent do not. However, not all AMS members study the climate, so they shouldn’t necessarily be considered climatology experts. Reread the conclusions of the authors quoted above: The consensus among the experts surveyed is solid.

2) The email tries to poison the well, saying that “scientists with professed liberal political views were far more likely to believe global warming is human-caused than others.” The funny thing is, that statement is true. We’ve known it for a long time, but the email makes it sound like a failing. It’s not; because the evidence for global warming is overwhelming, a more interesting question is to ask why those on the far right are more likely to deny it.

There's more, but I’ll just point you to several other folks who tear apart Heartland's email, including John Abraham and Dana Nuccitelli at the Guardian, Denise Robbins at Media Matters, and Brian Angliss at Scholars and Rogues.

They aren't alone. Keith Seitter, the executive director of the AMS and paper co-author, felt so strongly that the email misrepresented the actual paper results that he issued a statement calling it “disturbing” and says, “The text of the e-mail reports results from the study far differently than I would, leaving an impression that is at odds with how I would characterize those results.” In other words, what Heartland says about the survey results is not what the authors of the actual survey say. And remember, that comes from one of the co-authors of the paper.

I’ll also note that James Taylor, a senior fellow at Heartland, wrote an op-ed in Forbes that parallels the email and is taken to task by Chris Mooney at Mother Jones, and by the authors of the study themselves quoted at Climate Science Watch, who say:

James Taylor’s interpretation of our study is wrong. We found high levels of expert consensus on human-caused climate change.

Ouch.

There's one more aspect about all this I find fascinating.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies!  

Science is about evidence, fair skepticism, and honest investigation into claims based on them. If climate science really is in such disarray as the deniers claims, then why do so many resort to misleading tactics so often? Why post misleading graphs, why cherry-pick data, why engage in egregious ad hominems, why send out emails about papers that say the opposite of what the paper actually concludes? If their claims are correct, then why even risk the perception of impropriety?

It might seem as if they're more interested in scoring political and ideological points rather than scientific ones. But then, the evidence is solidly against them. So are 97 percent of the scientists who actually do research in climate science, as are the data, the science, and the reality of global warming.

As AMS executive director Seitter put it,

A difference between the AMS and some organizations is the transparency and scientific integrity with which we operate.  This survey was conducted to satisfy scientific curiosity on an important topic and the results are published for all to see.  This is the way science is meant to work.

It is. And it does.