The scientific consensus, and why it won’t change anyone’s mind

The scientific consensus, and why it won’t change anyone’s mind

No doubt you have strong views on something; say genetically modified foods, Crooked Hillary, legalizing marijuana, radical Islam, or dogs are better than cats. You are convinced that you’re absolutely right on the issue, and get worked up talking about it. But maybe you should step back, and for whatever it is that pushes your button, look at why you feel the way you do.

Scientists agree we are causing the earth’s climate to heat up (?)

Recently, I voiced that there is overwhelming scientific consensus in support of anthropomorphic climate change (ACC) i.e human activity being the most likely or significant cause of the rapid change we’re observing today, and a friend countered that no such consensus exists, that in fact thousands of scientists disagree that humans have anything to do with climate change. I was unable to say anything to substantiate my claim, and I wondered if I could be as guilty as I thought my friend was of believing propaganda. I’m sure he thought the same of me.

So for the sake of all the thorny issues that divide us I decided to do some investigative research to see if what I believe is in fact true; to see if I’m being misled.

At the very least I determined to find why my friend believed no scientific consensus exists, and why I did. I’d use climate change to see what it takes for the average person to get at the truth.

Where the consensus does NOT come from

Those who disparage the consensus say it comes from one 2009 survey. A Forbes 2012 article from Larry Bell articulates this well.

So where did that famous “consensus” claim that “98% of all scientists believe in global warming” come from? It originated from an endlessly reported 2009 American Geophysical Union (AGU) survey consisting of an intentionally brief two-minute, two question online survey sent to 10,257 earth scientists by two researchers at the University of Illinois. Of the about 3.000 who responded, 82% answered “yes” to the second question, which like the first, most people I know would also have agreed with.

Then of those, only a small subset, just 77 who had been successful in getting more than half of their papers recently accepted by peer-reviewed climate science journals, were considered in their survey statistic. That “98% all scientists” referred to a laughably puny number of 75 of those 77 who answered “yes”.

The small (77) survey sample size fuels contempt by Climate Change Deniers (CCDs) and it is often repeated by powerful people in the Republican party.

There is also uncertainty regarding to what degree man is to blame for global warming. However, the claim that 98 percent of scientists agree that humans are the singular driver of climate change has been repeatedly discounted. This oft-cited statistic is based on an online survey with a sample size of only 77 people, and the survey didn’t even ask to what degree humans contribute to climate change.”

— Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment, in an opinion article, April 13, 2013

The truth about the University of Illinois survey

Here’s what Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post had to say about this same study and where the 98% consensus came from:

Stewart is referring to a survey done for the American Geophysical Union in 2009 by researchers for the University of Illinois in Chicago. Peter Doran, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, along with former graduate student Maggie Kendall Zimmerman, in 2008 sent a simple survey with nine questions to more than 10,000 experts listed in the 2007 edition of the American Geological Institute’s directory of geoscience departments.

They ended up getting responses from 3,146 scientists, and then publicized the results from two questions: (1) Have mean global temperatures risen compared to pre-1800s levels? (2) Has human activity been a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures?

The results? About 90 percent of the scientists agreed with the first question and 82 percent with the second.

So where does the 98 percent statistic come from? That’s from a subsample of the survey — climate scientists. The survey actually says the result is 97 percent, but Stewart is correct that it represented just a small group of people — 77 out of 79 people.

Generally, with this sample size, one can expect a margin of error of about plus or minus 11 percentage points, or a range of 86 to 100 percent. That’s still a pretty big margin.

Note that Stewart simply said “scientists” — not climate scientists. That makes a difference, as experts who study the climate appear much more convinced that human activity has affected the climate. That’s shown by the survey, which found that less than half of petroleum geologists agreed with the second statement.

You can read the description and results of the study on Science Daily.

The interesting observations for me are:

  1. 82% of the 3,146 scientist respondents agreed to the second question.
  2. Only 77 of the 3,146 were climate scientists and of them 75 agreed (97%) that human activity is causing the climate to change.
  3. Only 50% of the petroleum scientists in the survey agreed to the second question (sample size not found.)

Are facts being mis-represented?

If you’d like to see a clear example of how difficult it is for a casual observer to distinguish the truth, look at a presentation on climate change to the Senate Energy Environment & Telecommunications Committee by Dr. Don Easterbrook where Dr. Easterbrook states that global warming is not even a cause for concern, and that if it is happening at all, it’s certainly not because of human activity.

The 90 minute video is below but there is one part where Dr. Easterbrook addresses the same survey as the source of the 97% consensus on ACC.

It begins at 1:07:00 when Dr. Easterbrook refers to the same University of Illinois survey, but says that the survey was done by a graduate student (“student”, I guess, is the key word) who sent out 10K questionnaire (so far so good), who then “hand-picked” 77 or 79 responses and all but two said yes to the question do you think human activity is causing climate change.

A good example of being misled

Dr. Easterbrook is either guilty of not reading the survey or deliberately mis-representing it’s findings. The student didn’t hand-pick anything but rather highlighted the subset of all the respondents (77) who were climate scientists. Other subsets were also taken, e.g. petroleum scientists, only 50% of whom agreed that human activity is most likely a significant cause of climate change.

What’s worse is Dr. Easterbrook makes it seem that this subset (sorry hand-picked) were the only ones who agreed with the second question (human activity is the significant cause of climate change) and concludes that the percentage agreeing was 2% (75 of the 3146 scientists).

This can best be described as a careless interpretation of the results. He then goes on to quote from the petition project as evidence that there are many scientists, thousands in fact, who disagree with ACC.

Where the consensus actually comes from

But the most interesting thing about the 2009 AGU sponsored survey is that it is not the primary source of the scientific consensus claim.

It comes up at 1:11:09 in the Senate presentation when Sen Andy Billig (D) brings up where the consensus claims come from.

My understanding of the consensus was not based on a survey, it was based on a review of the scientific papers, the peer-reviewed scientific papers that showed either that the overwhelming majority of the scientific papers peer-reviewed showed that …had a consensus about climate change was human caused, and a few that came to no conclusion, but very few that came to the opposite conclusion.

Dr. Easterbrook’s response at about 1:12 in the video is masterful. He basically says that the editorial boards of all these scientific journals will not even read a paper that has anything negative to say about CO2. In other words, the reason that so few scientific papers conclude that human activity is not a significant cause of climate change is because all the well-reputed scientific journals won’t read them.

Now that’s as ballsy as it is brilliant. Cast doubt on the major well-established scientific publications by saying ALL of them have a political agenda. That’s almost as ballsy as saying that global temperature data have been “manipulated,” which he does. At about 17:30 a Senator Kevin Ranker (D) restates Easterbrook’s claim incredulously, “the National Science foundation, NASA, and NOAA have manipulated the data?” Easterbrook confirms.

The truth about facts

It’s not that we no longer value facts or the truth, it’s that it’s very difficult to distinguish the facts when some people actively distort them. Special interest groups are spending vast quantities of money to make it very hard for most of us to know what’s true, and we’ve shown them that after a hard day’s work, we prefer the movies or social media than doing the hard work of validating what they’re putting out there.

And people on both sides of human caused climate change believe the special interest groups doing the mis-leading are on the other side of the issue (than the side they’re on).

People aren’t stupid, (lazy maybe)

If you believe that climate change is the most serious challenge we face you owe it to yourself to (1) understand why you believe that (2) have empathy for why millions of Americans do not.

It is not helpful to hold most CCDs as evil or stupid people (they think the same of you). There are undoubtedly some issues that you might change your mind about if you did the work to validate your own beliefs.

The average person also doesn’t understand how science works

Even in well-educated countries there is often a great mis-understanding of not only how science works, but a great unawareness or ‘forgetting’ of human biases that operate below our consciousness e.g. confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.

Even for scientists, the scientific method is a hard discipline. Like the rest of us, they’re vulnerable to what they call confirmation bias—the tendency to look for and see only evidence that confirms what they already believe. But unlike the rest of us, they submit their ideas to formal peer review before publishing them. Once their results are published, if they’re important enough, other scientists will try to reproduce them—and, being congenitally skeptical and competitive, will be very happy to announce that they don’t hold up.

Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science? By Joel Achenbach March 2015 in National Geographic

The doubters of evolutionary theory, or anthropomorphic climate change forget that fame and fortune await any scientist who can disprove a theory in current general consensus. This is why Dr. Easterbrook’s claim, that there is political agenda to conform to doctrine among scientific journals, is not credible. Easterbrook’s claim applies to religion, not science.

Lies, damn lies and statistics

Trying to convince people that they’re wrong will almost always fail simply because most human beings identify themselves with their opinions. They equate being wrong on an important matter with something being wrong with them, as if it damages their worth.

Plus, your enemies can always mis-represent data—as Dr. Easterbrook does above—to prove their point, so it’s almost impossible to convince them on the facts.

A better way to change minds

Rather, a better strategy is to clarify your own position and explain how you got there. I’m now clear on where my instinctive 97% scientific consensus comes from and I’ll be able to say so when next it comes up. I also know where the counter-claim of “thousands of scientists disagree with human activity as the cause of climate change.”

In the process I’ve come to understand why many people don’t accept ACC and I have some empathy for their position.

You’ll never change anyone by talking to them as if they are living in a bubble or stupid. All you’ll do is raise the volume of the conversation.

Instead, empathize with why they believe what they believe, share your own journey with discovering the truth for yourself, and then leave them alone. You’ll never convert them to your point of view using facts. NEVER.

Sharing your journey to the truth won’t entrench them in their position, and by not making them be the enemy you might convince them to at least re-examine their position and see where they are motivated to believe what they believe, and how some of their rationale to believe their facts may not be so strong.

Gayathri Vaidyanathan, wrote a very insightful on July 24, 2014 article on the global warming consensus in ClimateWire and she explains how one man’s mission to prove the scientific consensus is not making a difference.

Photo by go_greener_oz

Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.