John Cook, arch academic and scourge of the climate denier, worries a lot about fake experts, particularly those who lack the academic stature required to comment upon climate change.

They disturb him. Which is all very well, but such concerns would be a lot more credible if they were not coming from someone who himself has the kudos you’d expect from the love child of Darth Vader and Mrs Potato Head. His lack of regard for the stature of certain pundits stems from his preoccupation with credentials and academic standing. My lack of regard for him stems from the poor quality of his work; proof, if it were needed, that credentials and academic standing are not what one should be fixated upon.

I speak, of course, of Cook’s1 FLICC taxonomy, in which he neatly characterises the average denialist’s tactics by suggesting they can be covered by a relatively small number of errors of thinking:

  • False Expertise
  • Logical Fallacy
  • Impossible Expectations
  • Cherry Picking
  • Conspiracy Theory

As with Ed Hawkins’ warming stripes, FLICC is a glob of propaganda that has gained a traction that outstrips the quality of thinking behind it. And, as with Ed Hawkins’ warming stripes, the BBC and its fact-checking disinformation specialists appear to have really taken it on board and are more than happy to accept it uncritically. After all, Cook has credentials and academic standing. So I’m sure that anything I might want to say about FLICC would be pounced upon straight away by the BBC and stamped with a big red ‘FALSE’. Like Cook, they know a fake expert when they see one.

I see it differently, of course. I say that if you set out to construct a taxonomy of climate disinformation and denial techniques, and then seek to publish it in several languages, then the avoidance of multi-lingual mumbo jumbo should have been one of your objectives. It seems to me that it wasn’t. I really haven’t got time to cover all the reasons why I have a problem with this taxonomy, so I will instead concentrate my efforts upon making just the one observation:

Although aimed at the denier, there isn’t a single valid aspect of FLICC that cannot be readily turned around and used as a means of criticising the thinking behind climate alarmism.

This is because it isn’t actually a taxonomy of denialist tactics; it is simply a taxonomy of tactics. Cook turns it into the former only by supplying choice examples. On the other hand, I can easily turn it into a taxonomy of alarmist disinformation tactics by pulling the same trick. In fact, I think I’m in the mood to give you a flavour of how this works. For the purposes of the demonstration, I will focus upon what the taxonomy has to say about false expertise. I think this most apt because, in my uncredentialed opinion, that’s precisely what John Cook represents.

Expert Fakery

Let us start with Cook’s definition of the technique he calls ‘Fake Expert’:

“Fake experts are spokespeople that convey the impression of expertise on a topic while possessing little to no relevant expertise. A common characteristic of science denialists are that the vast majority are “private researchers” without the credentials required to public [sic] climate research in peer-reviewed journals.”2

So it is all about relevant experience and credentials then. In which case, what are we to make of a hydrologist who pontificates upon the nature of uncertainty and comes up with the howler that epistemic uncertainty is unscientific? Or how about the psychologist who, despite a complete lack of relevant experience and credentials, attempts to demonstrate mathematically that greater uncertainty implies higher risk, and falls flat on his face because he fails to understand how the measurement of uncertainty actually works? Or how about a cognitive scientist who has all of the credentials but still can’t get the basic terminology of cognitive bias right? I speak, of course, of Peter Gleick, Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook himself, all of whom seek to expose false expertise whilst demonstrating that they are themselves masters of that trade. I have said many times on this blog that the climate change debate is primarily concerned with decision-making under uncertainty. The foundational principles of decision theory and decision analysis lie outside of climatology and there is precious little evidence of their expert application within. But let us move on, because Cook has more to say on the subject:

“Bulk fake experts are one of the most potent incarnations of the fake expert technique.”2

To make his point he cites the Global Warming Petition project, for which there were 31,000 signatories. Gleefully, he points out that “over 99% of the signatories possess no research expertise in climate science”. Fair enough, but let’s now talk about the constitution of the IPCC. Based upon Cook’s own criterion, I think you will find that the majority of its contributors are fake experts. Or what about Greta Thunberg (no fake expert there) and her soon-to-be-released definitive tome on the subject? It has no fewer than 200 contributors but once you have stripped away the playwrights, novelists, poets, child activists and half-baked journalists you will find very little genuine expertise manning the barricades. Everyone is playing the numbers game, John.

Finally3, there is ‘fake debate’. This he has defined as:

“Presenting science and pseudoscience in an adversarial format to give the false impression of an ongoing scientific debate.”4

Yes, I know, it’s awful, isn’t it? It’s like when Extinction Rebellion spokespeople are granted air time to promulgate their pseudoscientific views on the imminent extinction of the human race, and the programme makers expect true experts to waste their time rebutting such nonsense. Thank God the media put an end to all of that, if only by failing to invite the true experts along to the debate. Besides which, who needs true experts when you have the Guardian’s endorsement?

Actually, ‘fake debate’ is presenting the current issue as one of science versus pseudoscience because there is no longer a scientific or technological debate to be had. Fake debate is when the only debate allowed is the acceptance of that view.

Cosmic overlord or root vegetable?

I could go on by demonstrating how Logical Fallacy, Impossible Expectations, Cherry Picking and Conspiracy Theory are all ably employed in the interests of climate alarmism, apparently without John Cook noticing. Conspiracy theory ideation, in particular, seems a very odd stone to throw at the denialist, given how much conspiracist nonsense has been generated in the cause of alarmism. Take, for example, the idea that initially all of the world’s best climate scientists were employed by Big Oil and forced to produce misleading research reports that downplayed the problem. You couldn’t make it up – except that is exactly what Owen Sheers did for the BBC’s ‘documentary drama’, The Trick.

But I digress. The real point here is that it disturbs Cook that I should deign to challenge aspects of the climate change narrative despite my lack of academic stature. And yet it disturbs me even more to see that Cook’s own credentials were not enough to stop him from producing work that demonstrates so little expertise. Worse still, to the extent that his taxonomy can be said to apply to anyone, it can also be applied to everyone. That doesn’t make it the damning analysis of an expert, it is just the blunt and indiscriminate tool of an advocate. And I don’t care how many academic qualifications and cited papers John Cook has, if he continues producing advocacy of such poor quality, he will always remain a potato-headed Darth Vader to me.

Notes and References:

[1] Cook readily acknowledges that he based FLICC upon the account of science denial tactics first detailed by Mark Hoofnagle.

[2] A history of FLICC: 5 techniques of science denial

[3] There is another aspect to fake expertise that concerns Cook and that is the impression that the relatively few climate scientists that still defy the consensus are granted disproportionate importance by the sceptic. This is listed as a technique, although the reality is that it is simply the situation the sceptic is faced with. Should anyone be complaining about the ‘vanishingly small’’ number of scientists working in attribution science who are having such a disproportionate influence on the way the public thinks about extreme weather?

[4]  Deconstructing climate science denial

13 Comments

  1. There is another aspect to fake expertise that concerns Cook and that is the impression that the relatively few climate scientists that still defy the consensus are granted disproportionate importance by the sceptic. This is listed as a technique, although the reality is that it is simply the situation the sceptic is faced with. Should anyone be complaining about the ‘vanishingly small’’ number of scientists working in attribution science who are having such a disproportionate influence on the way the public thinks about extreme weather?

    Not disproportionate, of course, if their arguments are better than the massed ranks of those who self-identify as truth-bearers. (Though the number who really agree with all the statements of XR is probably also vanishingly small. It just takes some courage to make this clear.)

    This paragraph, in footnote 3, strikes me somehow as the most important in the piece. Many of the best – like Bob Carter and Freeman Dyson – have already passed on. It’s hard to see how such quality will be allowed to emerge within ‘official’ climate science from here on in. As Lindzen said long ago the field has become corrupted.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Richard,

    The only reason why the statement was relegated to a footnote is because I wanted to restrict the main body of the text to demonstrating how each ‘valid aspect’ of FLICC could be turned around. I didn’t see the ‘magnified minority’ technique that Cook belatedly added to FLICC as being a valid point. If anything, it was a strawman and, as you indicate, the sceptic argument is much more concerned with discussing the legitimate and illegitimate ways in which a consensus can be arrived at, the importance or otherwise of consensus, and the value of arguments rather than the number of people making them. Incidentally, I suspect that Dyson may have been one of the fake experts that Cook was alluding to. After all, how many climate science papers has he had published in peer reviewed journals? It would go straight over Cook’s head that Dyson was one of the world’s most qualified people to comment upon the role and deficiencies of physical modelling.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Relying on credentials is a fallacy of its own kind, which Herr Flicc seems to have forgotten. There is a vast difference between the importance of credentials in for example operating an aircraft or performing an operation and what should be a level playing field when the question is one of science, maths or logic.

    Expertise in science may mean a knowledge of the literature, which amateurs won’t have time to compass. But the quantity of science done seems to be growing exponentially, such that few experts will be able to master more than a narrow fraction.

    In ecology, credentials are required for certain things, reflecting that the owner of those credentials has sufficient training and experience to undertake delicate tasks. However, in terms of ecological knowledge itself, I have no doubt that amateur naturalists very often outmatch their academic counterparts.

    Regarding climate scientists, generalising, I doubt that they understand their subject matter, again except within narrow bounds. If one person’s mind could span it all, then we wouldn’t need climate scientists swarming around like termites. If the subject was well understood there wouldn’t be such reliance on computer models. It wouldn’t be “worse than we thought” every fortnight: we would have got the right answer the first time.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Mr Cook was on Climate One recently-

    https://www.climateone.org/audio/breaking-down-climate-misinformation-amy-westervelt-and-john-cook

    He may not be aware that CA is currently having a few issues with keeping the lights on while at the same time allocating costs for the preferred solutions that have been implemented over the years.

    Click to access 2022-sb-695-report.pdf

    Hopefully he can provide some insight on the criteria to be used in determining who/m should be blacked out when the supply of juice is less than the demand.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. John Cook’s FLICC is not John Cook’s. It comes from the academic paper Diethelm and Mckee 2009, which is in the form of 5 criteria to test for denialism’, which became JC’s 5 FLICC categories. D&M in turn nicked it from the blog of the Hoofnagle brothers (one is a legal guy who is big in the second-hand smoking debate), but they wisely ditched the motivators of lying and crankiness (mental illness), but unfortunately for a casually substituted list they essentially grabbed off the street, and which includes various social and personal psychology motivators for which they provide no justification whatsoever. From Diethelm and McKee, these criteria got to be the core of the wiki page for ‘denialism’, and hence spread much further too. The tests cannot possibly work, and there is no researched underlying causes for ‘denialism’ in the paper either.

    Comprehensive debunk here, along with some progress on what really needs to be evaluated regarding who is who in socially conflicted science issues:
    https://judithcurry.com/2016/04/21/the-denialism-frame/
    …with some minor updates here…

    The Denialism Frame


    …and related, where ‘innate scepticism’ that forms bulk public resistance to orthodoxies, comes from and how it works:
    https://judithcurry.com/2017/02/20/innate-skepticism/

    Indeed, as you note, it is highly ironic that while these tests are useless (the cited behaviours occur on all sides of socially conflicted issues), they would indeed pick out many of the ‘experts’ that promote them, as ‘denialists’ themselves 0:

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Mark,

    Thank you for the climateone link. I’ll read it when I have more time.

    Like

  7. Re Australian School Curriculum on Persuasion. a lesson on how the Education Department promotes their Climate Change program as irrefutable – that is not science but is a form of persuasion itself. So cunning.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wouldn’t it be nice if John Cook was prepared to debate this stuff with you? Can’t see it happening any time soon, since debate with “deniers” is apparently verboten. Useful tactic, that – it prevents them from losing debates.

    Like

  9. Mark,

    The problem is, of course, that Cook will consider his work to be part of the body of scientific output that is now settled. That is certainly how everyone else seems to be treating it. This means that not only does he have no need to enter into any debate but to do so would be a failure to follow his own advice, i.e.do not engage in fake debate and do not do anything to magnify the minority. It’s a cheap trick, but it works.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. To point out what’s too obvious for anyone else to mention, Cook wrote a textbook about climate change without having taken (let alone taught) a single class in the subject as far as anyone knows. If memory serves his Masters was in solar astrophysics, which, per his own blog (It’s Not The Sun), sheds no light on climate—if you’ll pardon the pun.

    Liked by 3 people

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