Thursday, August 30, 2007

Global-Warming Denialists and "Consensus"

As soon as the wingnuts get bored with Clinton's fundraiser, expect them to latch on to this: "Survey: Less Than Half of all Published Scientists Endorse Global Warming Theory".

This one is by Michael Asher, a blogger whose posts in the last month include: Latest Research Erodes CO2's Role in Global Warming, Major New Theory Proposed to Explain Global Warming, Blogger Finds Y2K Bug in NASA Climate Data (remember that one?), New Scandal Erupts over NOAA Climate Data, and 2007 Hurricane Season: Where's the Beef?

Single-minded much?

Anyway, this is about a study conducted by one Klaus-Martin Schulte along the lines of the Oreskes survey of published climate research. Here's Asher's characterization of the Schulte study:

Of 528 total papers on climate change, only 38 (7%) gave an explicit endorsement of the consensus. If one considers "implicit" endorsement (accepting the consensus without explicit statement), the figure rises to 45%. However, while only 32 papers (6%) reject the consensus outright, the largest category (48%) are neutral papers, refusing to either accept or reject the hypothesis. This is no "consensus."

The figures are even more shocking when one remembers the watered-down definition of consensus here. Not only does it not require supporting that man is the "primary" cause of warming, but it doesn't require any belief or support for "catastrophic" global warming. In fact of all papers published in this period (2004 to February 2007), only a single one makes any reference to climate change leading to catastrophic results.
I don't know if Schulte has an axe to grind. He's a doctor specializing in endocrine surgery, not a climatologist; a Google search doesn't show much of any activity related to global climate change, apart from this study.

That said, Asher's description of the study is pretty heavily spun. What constitutes "endorsement"? What does "neutral" mean? Do the "neutral" papers actually reflect a neutral position on anthropogenic climate change, or is the "neutrality" simply assumed for the sake of the study? Accepting Asher's numbers at face value, isn't 45% to 6% still pretty overwhelming support?

And isn't this pretty much what you would expect to find if there were a consensus? When the Oreskes study was done, research establishing global warming was cutting-edge; if that's now firmly established, wouldn't you expect fewer studies arguing for it?

These really aren't rhetorical questions. I'm not a scientist, and I'm not qualified to judge either climatolological research or studies of climatological research. Neither, as far as I can tell, is Michael Asher (there's no biographical info up at Daily Tech).

But the thing to note is that like so much of the denialist argument, this isn't a direct attack on the merits of the case; it's an attack on the idea of 'consensus'. That's the great advantage held by the unreality-based community: they don't have to firmly establish their own version of 'truth'; they just have to confuse the issue. It's Debra Saunders saying "If there is a consensus, there should be no deniers"--so that all the UBC needs to do is assert an oppositional view ("it sure doesn't look round to me") and that makes it "controversial".

So expect the wingnuts to link to this--not to the study itself, but to the denialist's (probably) distorted and exaggerated characterization of the study--not because it has anything substantive to say about the science, but because it gives them a fig leaf for their denialist alternate reality.

Update: Tim Lambert has a much better-informed analysis than my own; it looks like the Schulte study (or Asher's description of the Schulte study) may be mischaracterizing some of the papers in the review. He invites his commenters to expand on the analysis, so keep checking there to get a more comprehensive view of the thing.