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Consensus discussion – Liars or Statistics?

There is an old saying that statistics don’t lie but liars use statistics.

While I am not going to call anyone a liar, I will point out that the belief of the individual analyzing raw data can affect the outcome of the data. This is one of the reasons why one should always be skeptical.

This posting will not be about any given article but rather will cover several articles that have recently been getting a lot of discussion among skeptics and non-skeptics on the theory of global warming and its causes. I admit that I am somewhat of a “junkie” when it comes to climate news so you may not have been affected by all of the news so here is the high-level:

  • In 2004 Ms. Naomi Oreskes, a scientific historian, wrote a non-peer reviewed essay in Science that said that a consensus exists in scientific literature that global warming was caused by mankind. She did this by looking for papers on “global climate change” and analyzing their conclusions. The papers in question were from 1993 to 2003 (see this article that she wrote also).
  • For years since Ms. Oreskes study, some politicians and others have used this statement to declare that the scientists have spoken and the case for human-induced global warming has been made and the case is CLOSED.
  • Recently, Mr. Klaus-Martin Schulte, a medical surgeon, has been in the news regarding a new paper that takes off from the Oreskes study. This new study purports to continue the study by analyzing the same search terms since 2004. This new study (which evidently is not published yet) points out that in this time period, there is no consensus.
  • Ms. Oreskes then called out Mr. Schulte and said that he was working for the oil companies and that he was a bad boy.
  • Mr. Schulte then said that Ms. Oreskes didn’t have all of her facts straight, his paper wasn’t published yet so she couldn’t have read it, and perhaps her original analysis wasn’t correct since he found some older papers that didn’t agree with the consensus.


So who is lying? Probably neither of them but that doesn’t mean that either is necessarily correct either. Neither paper is peer reviewed and we really don’t know how the individual interpreted the text of each article.  Were they looking for these specific words: “This proves that humans caused global warming”?  Probably not but maybe not far from the truth.

The reason I question what they were looking for is because I question how they selected their articles. Ms. Oreskes search was for “global climate change” and this supposedly resulted in 928 articles on the subject. However, it has been reported that the term “climate change” would have resulted in 12,000 articles – a significant increase from the 928 the Oreskes used and therefore one that should cause anyone to question the validity of her research or at least her conclusions. Shouldn’t she also use “global warming” or “Anthropogenic Warming” (human induced warming)?

What both individuals should do is publish a listing of the journal articles reviewed and how each of them were ranked.  Then inquisitive minds could do their own analysis.  Then when we are done with that, we could do a real search for more terms that cover the full suite of topics and then analyze that resulting list to find out if there is truly a consensus or not.

Sounds like fun.

I think that Mr. Schulte said it correctly: “If unanimity existed in the peer-reviewed literature between 1993 and 2003 – which I have reason to doubt – it certainly no longer exists today.”

We can’t even have consensus on how to reach a consensus!

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5 Responses to “Consensus discussion – Liars or Statistics?”

  1. Actually, I disagree. You are quibbling the same way that denialists do.

    Why, for example, should Oreskes have used “Climate change” as a search string, when the question is to do with AGW? If she had used “climate change”, that would have drawn in all sorts of papers about paloclimate and local climate change etc etc. At least “Global climate change”. Also “Anthropogenic warming” may not have been used very much at all in the literature. The simple fact is that Oreskes found no deviation from the consensus that is worth mentioning, and denialists cannot stand this. Shultes final quote is so far off the mark it is laughable- the point is that in science, what is consensus is then rapidly left behind and merely refered to when necessary. Scientists don’t see any need to re-fight old battles, unlike denialists.

  2. Thank you for your comment but I think we will have to disagree on this topic.

    Without a doubt, “climate change” would have included other topics but since she was reading each paper, these could have easily been discarded as not being on topic and a list published of which fit that category.

    Assuming that “anthropogenic” was not used is not really the point, is it. The point is how many articles with that term came to the same conclusion. I would “assume” that every article in her study included that term since that is the scientific term for the phenomenon and she was reviewing scientific journals.

    Finally, your argument against Schulte fails the simple logic test. His paper isn’t published so we don’t know all of the details but his sample base is quite similar in size given that it covers a smaller time frame. Evidently, his conclusion is that a consensus NO LONGER exists because a substantial percentage of his sample base questions the phenomenon in some manner.

    But actually, I think you missed the point in my article and I take that as bad writing on my part for not making my case well. My point is that neither study was scientific in nature or used good statistical methods to derive its conclusion. The conclusion is likely very much based on personal interpretation of certain articles that may or may not be a statistically significant percentage of the the articles on the subject. In other words, both studies have no meaning and therefore should be ignored.

  3. Well, there we have a real problem in that you appear not to have read Schultes paper anymore than anyone else. I note that Fergus Brown, who has read it, disagrees with you as well. Fergus’s answer is more polite and sensible than I feel like writing just now, so will refer you back to him.

  4. Good points. We shall see who is behind this “Climate Change”. Only time can tell that.

    Does anyone even remember in the 1970’s the scare about the ice age coming again?

  5. The question about search strings and results is perfectly valid. In a later paper Oreskes claims that she chose ‘global climate change’ instead of ‘global warming’ as though that would eliminate bias, but she could easily have keyed in something like global+(‘climate change’ OR warming), and even included other variables to ensure a comprehensive search. A ‘NOT’ function could be used to exclude categories of irrelevant articles.
    And a ‘study’ that has been quoted so widely really should be held up to the same scrutiny what it purported to examine – peer-reviewed journals.
    I find it rather curious that ‘global’ wasn’t mentioned as part of the keywords she used in the original article, though there was later a correction. Why would that be so? Was it just carelessness?
    “The simple fact is that Oreskes found no deviation from the consensus that is worth mentioning” Just one question – did she ever look for one?
    Holding up an oft-repeated study that makes blanket statements and sweeping conclusions up to scrutiny does not automatically mean someone is a ‘denialist’. Ad hominem attacks and claims of irrelevancy as though one is in a courtroom and trying to get testimony struck from the record is not the way to further knowledge on anything, and only ends up giving credence to the arguments of those same ‘denialists’…
    Also Fergus Brown worked with two others on a study regarding the same subject, which may explain the lack of interest (and ironically ended up being rejected by EOS).