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Attacks on scientific consensus on climate change mirror tactics of tobacco industry

Posted on 28 November 2013 by John Cook

The importance of public perception of scientific consensus has been established in a number of studies (e.g., here, here and here). Perhaps nothing underscores its importance more than the strenuous efforts that opponents of climate action have exerted in attacking consensus. For over two decades, fossil fuel interests and right-wing ideologues have sought to cast doubt on the consensus:

Consequently, it comes as no surprise that our paper Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature has come under intense attack. Since published 6 months ago, nearly 200 articles have been published online attacking our paper. The attacks have come in the form of blog posts, Youtube videos, cartoons, papers, reports and conspiracy theories. The most entertaining conspiracy theories are Christopher Monckton's suggestion that the high-impact journal Environmental Research Letters was created for the purpose of publishing our paper and Anthony Watts' accusation that Dana Nuccitelli has vested interests in oil.

Attacks on any scientific consensus, whether it be human-caused global warming or the link between smoking and cancer, exhibit five characteristics of science denial. Similarly, the attacks against our paper have exhibited the same five characteristics. Some of these characteristics are on offer in an opinion piece by Anthony Cox published in the Newcastle Herald. I was granted the opportunity to publish a response in the Newcastle Herald, which was published today:

OPINION: Climate change deniers use tobacco tactics

I point out that just as there are many lines of evidence for human-caused global warming, there are similarly a number of independent indicators of an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists. This replication is found even within our paper, which finds a 97% consensus whether rating the abstracts of each paper or inviting scientists to rate their own papers:

As the evidence piled up, overwhelming agreement developed among climate scientists. A 2009 survey of Earth scientists found that among actively researching climate scientists, more than 97 per cent agreed that humans were changing global temperatures. A 2010 study found that among climate scientists who had published peer-reviewed climate research, there was 97-98 per cent consensus.

I was part of a team that examined 21 years of climate research, identifying all papers stating a position on human-caused global warming. Some papers explicitly said humans were causing global warming. Others were more specific, quantifying just how much of global warming was caused by humans. Among papers giving a position on the topic, 97.1 per cent agreed humans were causing global warming.

Replication is the heart of scientific research. We checked our results by asking the actual scientists who authored the climate papers to rate their own research. As a result 1200 scientists rated their own papers. Among papers self-rated as stating a position on human-caused global warming, 97.2 per cent endorsed the consensus.

If there is a consilience of evidence and overwhelming agreement among climate scientists, how does one cast doubt on the consensus? By employing the 5 characteristics of denial, tactics honed by the tobacco industry in the 1970s and now adopted by climate deniers:

Consensus matters. When people correctly perceive that scientists agree about climate change, they're more likely to support climate action. Consequently, those who oppose policy to mitigate climate change have sought to cast doubt on the consensus for over two decades.

This is done with the same techniques of the tobacco industry and right-wing ideologues who denied smoking causes cancer.

Fake experts are invoked to portray the impression of ongoing scientific debate. Evidence is cherry-picked and any inconvenient data is ignored. Just as the tobacco industry demanded unreasonable levels of proof that smoking caused cancer, opponents of climate action employ the same technique of unrealistic expectations.

The same tactics are on offer in Anthony Cox's opinion piece "Politics muddy global warming debate" (Herald 27/11). Mr Cox magics away the overwhelming scientific consensus via "unrealistic expectations". He ignores any paper that doesn't specify the percentage of global warming humans have caused.

Thousands of papers endorsing the consensus conveniently disappear. Statements such as "global warming caused by greenhouse gases emitted into the air is a result of the human activities" or "accumulating evidence points to an anthropogenic 'fingerprint' on the global climate change that has occurred in the last century" do not endorse the consensus, according to Mr Cox.

Our understanding of climate change is based on many lines of evidence. The result is an overwhelming scientific consensus, observed in a number of independent studies.

However, those who reject climate science persistently muddy the waters in the same manner right-wing ideologues and the tobacco industry denied the science linking smoking with cancer.

Read the full article here...

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Comments 1 to 32:

  1. What is it you want to demonstrate with this article? Prove that the opinion you represent is more worth than the opinion of others? Opinions are not evidence, they cannot be exchanged against facts and evidence. Opinions can easily be influenced, facts cannot.

    In the Middle Age, there was a consensus of more than 90% that whitches had to be drowned becaused they were responsible for extreme weather events. You don't gain anything if you have all the opinions on your side, as long as the evidence isn't conclusive.

    Climate science is not like the tobacco industry, but there is a commonality between them: both may be considerable contributors to the livelihood of their partisans.

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  2. topal @1

    What is it you want to demonstrate with this article? Prove that the opinion you represent is more worth than the opinion of others?

    I think it is John Cook's facts-established-by-research versus the opinions-and-obfuscation of Anthony Cox.

    No contest, really, if you read the articles without prejudging them.

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  3. topal, I'm guessing you didn't follow the link and read the article as it begins by discussing evidence:

    MANY lines of evidence confirm that humans are causing global warming. Scientists measure more heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, a result of burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Satellites measure less heat escaping to space at the exact wavelengths that greenhouse gases trap heat. Human fingerprints are being observed all over our climate.

    Here's a link to the full article...

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  4. topal@1,

    You fail to recognise that John is talking about "scientific consensus" rather than "opinion". Regardeless, we've already discussed that the scientiic consensus does matter for those who are unwilling/unable to understand the actual science due to lack of time or impossibility to gain the level of expertise required to judge the actual evidence. There are more than many real life examples where you rely on experts' opinions; simplest example being the doctors you consult re your health.

    In your second paragraph, you belittle the value of "a consensus" but qualify your critique with the clause "as long as the evidence isn't conclusive". Therefore, by that measure, you are telling us that the climate science consensus cannot be considered here, because we know there are multiple lines of conclusive evidence of climate science consensus validity.

    Finaly, in your closing paragraph, you comparing two entities - multidisciplinary abstract knowledge and an industrial organisation - conceptually so different, that it does not make sense to even conceive such comparison, therefore your sentence sounds like  completely chaotic rambling. I can only note that commenters on this site are supposed  to make consice, logical points; so your rambling should not have been pronounced here.

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  5. @chriskoz. you fail to understand what consensus means: 'a general agreement about something : an idea or opinion that is shared by all the people in a group'

    My emphasis.

    'you comparing two entities - multidisciplinary abstract knowledge and an industrial organisation - conceptually so different, that it does not make sense to even conceive such comparison'

    That's why I fell that the idea of comparing tobacco with climate is completely off the rail.

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  6. topal, we are not comparing tobacco with climate, we are comparing the tactics used by the tobacco industry, to spread doubt over the link between smoking and cancer, with the tactics used to spread doubt over the science of climate change. These tactics are well documented.

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  7. @John Cook: 'I'm guessing you didn't follow the link and read the article as it begins by discussing evidence:' If there is irrefutable evidence, why do you need a consensus? You shouldn't care about the opinions of those who try to refute your evidence. Unless they come up with evidence that refutes your evidence. That's what we call science, that's how science debates hypotheses.

    You will never ever be able to obtain the consensus with every human being on this planet. The majority don't even understand the science or they don't even care about climate (or tobacco). Why should they, they might have better or more urgent things to do. Trying to find a link between tobacco and climate is pure nonsense.

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  8. "Trying to find a link between tobacco and climateis pure nonsense."


    The methods used by the interest groups trying to discredit or misrepresent the science on climate are the same methods (refined over time) that were used by the tobacco industry to discredit the science on the health effects of tobacco. Some of the groups practicing disinformation are also the same. The link is very clear, pure nonsense consists of saying there isn't one. In science (real science, as it is nowadays practiced) consensus is possible only if there is a corresponding convergence of research results. That convergence is what gives rise to the consensus, in fact.

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  9. topal, I think you're missing the point. The link between the tactics used by the tobacco industry and big oil has already been established - read for example this report by the Union of Concerned Scientists or Merchants of Doubt by Oreskes and Conway.

    You don't need to think long to find a reason for the tobacco industry and big oil wanting to spread doubt about the science behind the link between tobacco and cancer, and behind greenhouse gases and global warming, respectively.

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  10. @topal - its really clear that think tanks like Heartland are using the exact same tactics by denying the established science, and even manufactures their own "research" (NIPCC) much like the "doctors smoke this brand" advertising from back then. These groups don't really do or represent real science, but are manufacturing propaganda to spread doubt as they are representing the fossil fuel interests. Scientists arent really representing anything besides the same stuff that govern physical laws. Gravity isnt affected by politics any more than the properties of CO2.

    It's important to repeat this message in the media, as people need to be aware that special interests groups are making a lot of noise that really stops us from acting on the real scientific evidence we have at hand now.

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  11. @topal, you said: "you fail to understand what consensus means: 'a general agreement about something : an idea or opinion that is shared by all the people in a group'"

    Nope.  This article is talking about scientific consensus, which is the convergence of expert opinion as a result of replication and new lines of evidence converging to support a theory.

    For example, nobody quibbles with the "fact" that aspirin is a painkiller.  But that's really a very strong scientific theory.  If you dug around in the research literature on aspirin, you'd probably find (I'm guessing) a couple of papers showing that aspirin has no painkilling effect.  But there's so much evidence that it does have a painkilling effect that the results of those papers can be put down to poor methodology or a sampling artefact, because the chance they are right is vanishingly small.  So scientists in the area of aspirin research can be said to have come to a consensus based on the probability that the bulk of the research, which points in the same direction, is correct.

    The scientific consensus on climate science is probably a lot stronger than the consensus on aspirin given the amount of research in the area (versus a few clinical trials).  The theory is accepted as a given, i.e. you can assume that it is true when starting a new piece of related research. 

    But painting this as the "normal", opinion-based sort of consensus is a good denial tactic, as is highlighting the views of the very few contrarian climate scientists (who are in the same boat as the people who authored negative trials on aspirin, if there are any - they're destined for the dustbin of science history.)

    Why would anybody resort to deliberate denial?  Follow the money.  Tobacco is a big industry.  I doubt if it compares to the estimated US$27 trillion worth of fossil fuel reserves still in the ground, which will have to stay where they are if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.  That's what oil companies are valued on; if the oil in the ground becomes worthless, so do they.



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  12. And BTW, the strength of scientific consensus can be measured and calculated, by using a statistical technique called meta-analysis, or by doing a research review like the one John Cook and colleagues did.  It is anything but an opinion poll.

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  13. I think topal needs to read Naomi's Oreskes book Merchants of Doubt.

    It's really not speculation that the same tactics that were used for the tobacco industry that are now being used for the fossil fuel industry. In many cases it's the exact same people.

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  14. caroza @11... "That's what oil companies are valued on; if the oil in the ground becomes worthless, so do they."


    Think of it in terms of return on investment (ROI). The ROI for the few hundred million (US$) that the FF industry puts behind the climate change denial movement is a tiny fraction of what the industry profits each an every quarter they are able to delay action.

    It's sort of a no-brainer for the FF industry to make such investments. Ultimately I think it's going to backfire on them, though.

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  15. Tobacco companies are concerned about replacing users since all the serious users die out. That's why they aim a young people.Carbon fuel use will be decimating the population in the same way. Expect to see messages targeting youth - future smokers, er, carbon uses.
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  16. Has anyone ever done a study of the downwind rural temperature records of major cities to see if there was a discernible difference in temperature from those rural areas that where not downwind? I am assuming the c02 levels would be higher downwind from the major cities and thus have higher temperatures.

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Wind directions, no matter how prevailing, still vary.  The greenhouse gas effects of CO2, being a diffuse and well-mixed gas, manifest themselves on a global basis, rising bove ackground noise over time.  Local effeects on short timescales are lost in noisy weather effects.

  17. What a great validation of the importance of John Cook's work. Almost 200 attach articles pages or jokes.  

    It cant be denied (well of course it's done all the time but not in any way that makes any sense) that there is a political contest between science and the fossil fuel industries for control of the hearts and minds of the voting public. It's clear from the last Australian elections that climate denial and distortion of what is real can win elections.

    Politics is the world of appearances and is a kind of warfare that industries fund to a larger extent that people. I really appreciate the work of SkS to clarify the tactisc used by industry.

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  18. In today's West Australian, which is the most widely newspaper in Western Australia, there is a piece by Paul Murray discussing the survey by the American Meteorological Society of the views of its members on the link between carbon emissions from human activity and global warming. This survey was carried out, so the article reports, because of the conflict among the members on this topic.  A reported key finding  is "that the society acknowledges the uncomfortable fact that political ideology influences the climate change views of scientists.  Only 52% of the members who responded "went for the full anthropogenic answer that the cause of global warming was mostly human"  Remarkably this is a lot less than the 97% that has been reported elsewhere.  However although 93% of the members who are climate scientists did support the "full anthropogenic view" 22% of the most expert group of scientists over all categories did not believe that global warming was mostly human caused.  The report also noted that "the climate debate has become increasingly polarised around political issues rather than scientific understanding".

    The article also reported on the 22 papers published by the AMS "seeking to  explain extreme global weather events from a climate perspective" of which two studied the heavy rainfall in Eastern Australia. One of the authors of these papers is David Karoly who Paul Murray notes "is the Climate Commission's prominent alarmists".  Murray goes on to say the results of the studies  " found "no apparent influence from anthropogenic climate change in the observed rainfall anaomalies"  and concludes (with reference to David Karoly) "It must be a bugger when science does that".  

    As Murray also refers to the scientific consensus as "the phoney consensus", this  article, put out in the mass circulation MSM, may well, I fear, seriously compromise the efforts to persuade West Australians that humans really do affect climate.  

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  19. Anne Marie Blackburn  I think you'll find "Big Oil" is strongly supporting the development of renewable forms of energy generation

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  20. Poster @18 - we'll have a post on Monday about the AMS survey and the various misunderstandings and misrepresentations of it.

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  21. Thanks Dana  I look forward to that.  Unfortunately however, the post on Moday won't reach more than a very few of those who read Paul Murray's piece in today's West Australian.  Consequently the vast majority may well continue to see credence in his article

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  22. I too read Murray's piece in this mornings West Australian.  Pretty disappointing.  But one should not expect too much from the West :-)

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  23. adrian smits @16

    Local CO2 concentrations aren't a strong indicator of local warming. CO2 needs to get mixed into the atmosphere and changes in concentration reach the upper atmosphere. It is changes in the upper atmosphere concentration that cause the warming. This upward mixing takes months to several years. It is then this broad change in upper level concentrations that causes the warming.

    So any effect downwind from a city due to its CO2 emissions wouldn't produce localised GH heating. That isn't to say that air masses downwind of a city may not directly carry some heat with them, although most heat transfer is via radiation. But their localised downwind CO2 won't produced localised heating.

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  24. Poster: suggest you read the AMS Blog: 

    Precisely proving the point made in the article, Heartland has sent out an email which at first glance might look like one from the AMS. The AMS response has been to point out that the 'interpretation' of the paper is basically BS.

    This is a canard which appeared last year, and in 2009. It's a regular attack, in other words, on the consensus. From familiar 'players'. Who are using familiar tactics.

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  25. Thank you Fergus Brown.  I did not get an email from Heartland and read the paper from the AMS yesterday morning.  The piece in the West Australian reported verbatim some of the points made in that paper suggesting the writer may have acqired information from sources other than the Heartland Institute

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  26. My apologies Fergus Brown.  I should have included the link to the paper I referred to in my post of 07:44.  The URL is  

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  27. Poster

    Meteorologist Vs. Climatologist

    This is equivalent to a podiatrist saying there is nothing wrong with the parent’s little toe while an orthopaedic specialist’s diagnosis is the parent’s whole leg has bone cancer.

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  28. correction

    parent = patient

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  29. There is no such thing as a "global" temperature. Think about it. Really. They are working with an "average" that won't melt ice anywhere; only real temps melt ice. Locally. 100 anywhere in the U.S. will not melt ice in Antarctica where they would be experiencing extreme cold temps that accompany it (think up to 128 degrees below zero)

    You have to completely overlook larger forces like the output of the sun, the tilt of the planet, and alternating seasons - how the planet works - in order to blame climate change on our miniscule contribution to the overall amount of CO2. It is most unfortunate that the IPCC did just exactly that with their research - the focus was solely on man-made CO2.

    By the way, you can't tell anything about reality with an average temperature. If I told you the average temp for a given day was 70 degrees, you could not tell me what the high or low was. Take a little time to digest that. There is no standard for computing average temps. No matter, because an average temp is not a temperature. It cannot melt ice anywhere.

    We have world leaders who have suckered us into believing that there's a single "global" temperature and thrown good money after bad on something we don't and can't control. They have the cart before the horse. We don't control climate; it controls us. The climate determines whether or not you turn your furnace or a/c on, or whether you crank up your snow blower to get rid of what's accumulated in your driveway or whether you start your mower.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Your personal opinions have little or no value in this venue. Please read the SKS Comments Policy and adhere to it.

  30. If the tabaco industry was sued for the damage they did with their product and mis-information, is there grounds for similar action against the fossil fuel industry?

    Is there any current actions in that direction?

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  31. 4TimesAYear, your comments rise--or fall--to the level of 'so wrong, they're not even wrong." Not sure where to start but here will do.

    "It is most unfortunate that the IPCC did just exactly that with their research - the focus was solely on man-made CO2."

    The IPCC did not *do* research: they compiled and--dare I say it?--averaged the data and research of thousands of respected and well-supported organizations, from governments' research institutions, down to the work of individual climatologists. The "focus...solely on man-made CO2" only exists in the minds of the dismissives: I assure you that, for nearly 150 years, all your other sources have been studied. 

    Facts, being pesky things, have shown that nothing can account for the change in our climate--from paleo records, to ice records, to dendro records, and to heliological studies--and the only thing left, as Sherlock would say, however improbable, is the answer. Humans have caused this rapid and unprecedented change in the Earth's atmosphere, and to bring this back on topic, the consensus of >97% of the world's scientists and scientific organizations....disagree with *you.*


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  32. 4timesayear wrote "It is most unfortunate that the IPCC did just exactly that with their research - the focus was solely on man-made CO2."

    someone obviously hasn't taken the time to actually read the IPCC WG1 reports then! ;o)

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