Time to excavate your SkepticalScience.com bookmark! An exciting new ‘guest debunk’ by the Harvard scholar Naomi Oreskes examines the popular misconception that “[s]cientists in the 1990s and 2000s said the global atmosphere would heat up.”
Spoiler alert: her analysis concludes that the myth is not, in fact, true. On the contrary—it’s flawed.
We caught up with Professor Oreskes and her webmaster and son, Bristol University’s John Cook, during their three-continent tour to fight public misconceptions about their new post.
“Forget everything you’ve heard about our latest debunk,” says the baby-faced Cook, a newly-created PhD from Australia. Any more freshly-minted and you could smell the meconium of mugglehood on his breath.
“It’s all lies. Skeptic lies.”
So that’s what Skeptical Science’s hottest new entry isn’t about, I say. Can you tell me what it is about?
Prof. Oreskes does the honors. With most climate change now occurring underwater, she explains, a common tactic to embarrass scientists is to perpetuate the alt-history factoid that—barely a decade ago—they were threatening that the air was going to warm up.
“We scientists [sic],” says the historian, “have a clearer and clearer understanding that virtually all the heat caused by humans—Hiroshima for Hiroshima—is confined to the bathyclimatic zone.
“Which is a fancy way of saying the lower ichthyosphere. Hundreds of feet below sea level: that’s where the action is, to all instensive [sic] purposes.
“But if we expected, at the turn of the millennium, that [AGW] was going to be an atmospheric phenomenon, that would be a real black eye to our credibility, wouldn’t it? We haven’t screwed up that bad since the ‘global cooling’ consensus of the ’50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s. I was in college at the time, and I still recall the fear our Professors used to drum into us about the ‘coming Ice—‘“
“No, that’s compl—” Cook cuts in. “That’s been debunked, Mum. We talked about this.”
“We did. We did? Right, now I remember… warming. Sorry. There used to be a ‘global warming’ consensus back in the 1950s, ‘60s and even as late as the early ‘70s.”
“That’s right Mum,” says Cook, adding quietly: “I’m sorry about this.
“It’s important to realize that she’s now, 74? 85? I think it’s important that journalists especially need to understand, historians of science are people like everybody else. They get old, they get confused, they crave routine, and especially academics who have been very lucid in their earlier period of life and I think sometimes it’s hard for them when they start to lose their memory so I think we’ve seen that phenomenon here.
”Mum, why don’t you tell the man about the [myth] you debunked?”
Oreskes says she started by asking if the ’surface warming’ meme represented a true scientific consensus. If so, not only would it be accurate to accuse ‘science’ itself of having ’said’ atmospheric warming was imminent, but atmospheric warming must, in fact, have been imminent, and would therefore “be happening now, as we speak.”
Fortunately, after scouring the historical record, Oreskes found that the only ‘consensus’ on surface warming was the result of a conspiracy of misunderstandings by an excitable, technically-illiterate media, echoed and amplified in the corridors of the politics of fear.
In the magisterial myth-fisking at SkepticalScience, the Connecticut-based historian makes a point that can’t be made often enough: The Guardian, An Inconvenient Truth, the NASA website and blogs like SkepticalScience and RealClimate are not examples of scientific documents, and belong in the proverbial dustbin when deciding what the science is telling us.
“One one hand you have what Time, Newsweek, Al Gore, Ban-Ki Moon, New Scientist, Scientific American, Munich Re, the Christian Science Monitor, The Conversation, Leonardo DiCaprio, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, the IPCC, the Australian Climate Commission and the EPA are telling us,” writes Dr Oreskes.
“On the other hand you have the literature.”
Anyone conscientious about climate change would read the latter and only the latter, says Dr Cook, which is why he often relies on it as a source of story ideas for his pop-science blog.
In the ‘Advanced’ version of the debunk, Oreskes concedes that a handful of legitimate scientists did, indeed, publicly state that the planet’s surface would warm appreciably.
But not all scientists are created equal, so Oreskes took a closer look at the credentials of this short list of ‘experts.’ To say the results were underwhelming would be an overstatement.
Of the individuals she examined, most were just climate scientists, a profession not taken particularly seriously by the rest of the scientific community.
And they weren’t just any climate scientists, Oreskes discovered. “In a remarkable 55% of these cases, their competence was confined to what we would politely call ’impacts [of climate change] research.’”
“It’s a perfectly respectable field,” explains the climate modeler Matthew England, “if you’re content with know[ing] nothing about Earth’s atmosphere yourself and having to blindly take our word on future temperature trends.”
(England boasts that, “while many other groups need to use [his] results,” he doesn’t even read theirs.)
Prof. Oreskes is less diplomatic. She tells us that an entrenched culture of looking down on ‘impacts’ people as a subsidiary, dependent field is well-justified.
“It’s hard to say the following without sounding elitist,” she says, “so I’m not going to try.
“Why someone who measures cock shrinkage in oysters [as a putative result of global warming] would consider him- or herself entitled to give an opinion on statistical trends in the kinetics of the molecules that make up the sky is a question for a psychiatrist, not a Professor of Unanimous Opinion in the Geosciences like me. I was invited to teach a make-up class to summer-school students at the Vienna Circle Institute in Vienna, Austria, where I danced with Archdukes and Dauphins at the Harvest Rot Ball, a privilege that only comes around annually.
“But I suppose beggars can’t be choosers. If you’re going to rewrite history and fabricate an entire scientific paradigm, why not scrape the bottom of the world’s least-scientific barrel of brains to do it?”
In the most amusing section of Oreskes’ debunk, she mercilessly details the credentials, or lack thereof, of a number of surface-warming proponents from the 1990s and 2000s.
- One seemed to oscillate between chemical engineer (his only scientific qualification), self-taught climate professor, commissioner for weather reform, and energy-tax consigliere to the Prime Minister of a desert-island republic at the far end of the world’s alimentary canal.
- Another changed his name from Stephan to Steven to Steve to Stevan on a seemingly annual basis, she noticed—“presumably to distance himself from one debunked paper after another.”
- One struggled to use Excel.
- Another was a tree-ring physicist who believed in ‘remote… teleconnections’ that allowed the flora on one hill to react to the temperature on other hills—a kind of arboreal Internet that reportedly inspired Avatar. (“It’s a good movie,” Oreskes concedes, “but there’s a reason it’s considered science fiction.”)
- Another seems to have spent more time denigrating fellow scientists on Twitter than contributing to peer-reviewed science. According to a literature search, he’s done nothing important since last century, when he published a one-hit-wonder graph.
- One was privately described as doing “very sloppy work” by his closest colleagues, who were afraid to tell him because of his thin skin, short temper and long memory.
- Some were counted more than once because they’d managed to make themselves “go-to guys” in the non-science media, gaining a disproportionately vocal presence. For example, the last three people are in fact the same “scientist.”
- Another was a prehistoric wombat expert who raved about “intelligent superorganisms” and a plan by the United Nations “to legislate each and every single aspect of our lives.” Strangely, few of his peers have admitted being privy to this conspiracy!
- A number of names were obvious fakes. “’Skeptics’ are strangely un-skeptical about the fact that their ‘sources’ have the names of Hollywood and sporting celebrities. As long as your ‘paper’ is an embarrassment to science, you can sign it Phil Jones, Michael J. Fox (Back to the Future Part 3, Family Ties) or Michael Mann (The Last of the Mohicans, Heat) for all they care,” says Oreskes mordantly.
For his part, John Cook doesn’t expect ‘skeptics’ to give up their claims of a surface-warming consensus any time soon. But his hope is that if enough reasonable people visit his site, “then maybe, just maybe, we can confer ‘herd immunity’ [against the myth] to the Earth’s population.”