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What does Naomi Oreskes' study on consensus show?

What the science says...

An examination of the papers that critics claim refute the consensus are found to actually endorse the consensus or are review papers (eg - they don't offer any new research but merely review other papers). This led the original critic Benny Peiser to retract his criticism of Oreskes' study.

Climate Myth...

Naomi Oreskes' study on consensus was flawed

The claim of “consensus” rests almost entirely on an inaccurate and now-outdated single page comment in the journal Science entitled The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change (Oreskes 2004). Benny Peiser conducted a search of peer-reviewed literature on the ISI Web of Science database between 1993 and 2003. Dr. Peiser’s research demonstrated that several of the abstracts confounded Oreskes’ assertion of unanimity by explicitly rejecting or casting doubt upon the notion that human activities are the main drivers of the observed warming over the last 50 years. (source: Consensus? What Consensus?)

In 2004, Naomi Oreskes performed a survey of all peer reviewed abstracts on the subject "global climate change" published between 1993 and 2003. She surveyed the ISI Web of Science database, looking only at peer reviewed, scientific articles. The survey failed to find a single paper that rejected the consensus position that global warming over the past 50 years is predominantly anthropogenic. 75% of the papers agreed with the consensus position while 25% made no comment either way (eg - focused on methods or paleoclimate analysis).

Benny Peiser's rebuttal

Benny Peiser repeated Oreskes survey and claimed to have found 34 peer reviewed studies rejecting the consensus. However, an inspection of each of the 34 studies reveals most of them don't reject the consensus at all. The remaining articles in Peiser's list are editorials or letters, not peer-reviewed studies. Peiser has since retracted his criticism of Oreskes survey:

"Only [a] few abstracts explicitly reject or doubt the AGW (anthropogenic global warming) consensus which is why I have publicly withdrawn this point of my critique. [snip] I do not think anyone is questioning that we are in a period of global warming. Neither do I doubt that the overwhelming majority of climatologists is agreed that the current warming period is mostly due to human impact."

The Viscount Monckton of Benchley's rebuttal

Despite Peiser's retraction, the same argument was repeated by the Viscount Monckton of Benchley (and plagiarised by Schulte). Here are the five studies Monckton claims Oreskes should've included in her survey as rejecting the consensus position:

Intermediate rebuttal written by John Cook

Update July 2015:

Here is a related lecture-video from Denial101x - Making Sense of Climate Science Denial


Last updated on 4 November 2016 by MichaelK. View Archives

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Comments 1 to 13:

  1. There is no scientific consensus on the causes of recent (~150 years) global warming amongst scientists. What there is, however, is a continuing distortion of the statistics representing scientific research and opinion. For one thing, one can't simply report the views of climatologists only, (who generally have a vested interest), but more importantly, this would leave out the greater fields under which climate science is a subset-e.g. earth history and solar science. If you include earth history (i.e. geology etc) and solar scientists etc etc, the figures for 'consensus' always become smaller. Take for example the idea 'that global warming creates more deserts'. Nice idea to do research on. Climatologists, who are naturally assumed to best answer such a question, then go and gather lots of data, project models, debate, discuss etc etc, and yet don't even bother to consult the past geological record. This would be like a lawyer arguing a case without reference to any case histories. The geological record indicates, that warm periods correspond to less deserts, which is not mentioned in the subsequent climatologist reports. An example is the drying of Africa during the onset of glacial (cooler) periods in the last ~5 Ma, which led to reduced rainforests and more savannah, and the consequent evolution of an upright ape on the savannah-the hominid line (that’s us). But according to the IPCC, Africa does the opposite-it is projected to get drier overall with projected warming, which means, according to the IPCC, we wouldn't even be here. The statistics and reporting of consensus regarding human-induced climate change has been distorted, similar to what went on in the Soviet Union in the past, eg something like "928 tractor factories were surveyed in the Soviet Union, with 75% supporting the Party's position that production has increased and living standards are better, and 25% are looking more into improving worker conditions, whilst none claim that things have got worse...etc etc". Or to take a more contemporary example, if you asked various USA banks a few years before the recent financial crisis what state their financials were in, what kind of answer do you think you would have got? The Oreskes report is a gross distortion. Here is a link to all 928 abstracts so you can check them for yourself- the vast majority of which are COMPLETELY NEUTRAL as regarding the question of human-induced climate change. Think of it another way, if you are studying squirrels, and want to do research, what better way than looking into how any climate changes might affect squirrel numbers, dung chemistry of whatever. Note, however, that in this context, there isn’t any 'position' taken on whether or not humans are causing climate change, (or even that it is occurring), something which such a study couldn't answer. The vast majority of the 928 abstracts fall into this 'neutral' category. To say that “none of the papers disagree with the consensus position” (i.e. human-induced global warming), is a gross distortion; a small percentage have come to stronger conclusions which question it, and a small percentage have come to stronger conclusions which support it (the relative proportions for both cases is difficult to put a figure on, because the data, by its very nature, is ambiguous), but the point is, the vast majority are not even attempting to answer the question.
  2. In your Peiser 'retraction' link and quote you have misrepresented what he is saying. Here is the longer version (from which you have cherry-picked/distorted) of what he said: "I do not think anyone is questioning that we are in a period of global warming. Neither do I doubt that the overwhelming majority of climatologists is agreed that the current warming period is mostly due to human impact. However, this majority consensus is far from unanimous. Despite all claims to the contrary, there is a small community of sceptical researchers that remains extremely active. Hardly a week goes by without a new research paper that questions part or even some basics of climate change theory. (For the latest developments, see Undoubtedly, sceptical scientists are a small minority. But as long as the possible impacts of global warming remain uncertain, the public is justified to keep an open mind. How decision-makers deal with these scientific uncertainties is another matter. But it is vital for the health and integrity of science that critical evaluation and scepticism are not scorned or curbed for political reasons."
  3. Another example of misrepresentation of what Peisner said, from the same source you quoted: "Please note that the whole ISI data set includes just 13 abstracts (less than 2%) that *explicitly* endorse what she has called the 'consensus view.' The vast majority of abstracts do not deal with or mention anthropogenic global warming whatsoever. I also maintain that she ignored a few abstracts that explicitly reject what she calls the consensus view. You can check for yourself at" You 'conveninently' left this statement, and others like it, by Peisner out. reference:
  4. Poor Benny Peiser, having to eat so much crow, as this article highlights his analysis of data was 97% wrong Naomi Oreskes is an outstanding scholar.
  5. I think thingadonta has it right. I worked at ISI and delivered the first electronic version of the database that Oreskes used. Understanding how the indexers created the data that was searched I see the flaw in her thesis. She searched with the term "Climate Change" as though that would provide an exhaustive search of the scientific literature. I believe that the indexers would select that term for a keyword or mention it in an abstract only on articles that used the term. To me this provides an enormous bias. Would a scientist who does not believe in the Climate Change/Global Warming orthodoxy use their terminology? I believe that what she retrieved was a group who as thingadonta suggests use the term to ensure publication and funding. Their publication may not have anything to do with a proof or even discussion of the role of anthropogenic CO2 in any change in average temperature much less climate change. So what is it that Oreskes proved? That climate is changing? That average world temperature increased? That some biological event can be explained to some degree by an 1.4 degree rise in average world temperature? The important questions is the contribution of anthropogenic CO2 to any warming. What portion of her retrieved set of publications demonstrated proof of a dominant or even significant contribution? Climate change is certainly a tautology. Climate has always and will always change.

    [DB] "Climate has always and will always change."

    I can understand why someone would think that.  Many others have expressed similar sentiments before.  Of those, those who have taken the time to actually study the science of climate change now would disagree with you. 

    Please see Climate's changed before and learn why.

  6. Dellewho "Would a scientist who does not believe in the Climate Change/Global Warming orthodoxy use their terminology?" Absolutely. My casual reading suggests that contrarians are much more likely to use these specific words. Scientists generally tend to use wording specific to the topic they're working on. This may or may not include such terms. It's the contrarians who consistently use these general terms within the paper itself even when the very specific physical, chemical or biological process in question doesn't necessarily require it. (Of course this says nothing about how journals categorise papers - and, therefore, how writers submitting papers are expected to include appropriate search and reference terms.)
  7. I am not a "climate sceptic", far from it, having had the chance to discuss the topic in depth with various scientists. However, I do think that the points raised by Dellewho need to be considered. I have done a lot of "bibliometric" research, which is basically what Oreskes did. With bibliometrics, you need to find the right keyword combination to capture as many relevant publications as possible while excluding the irrelevant. It's not easy. No matter what the keyword combo, you will either end up missing a lot of papers (because your keywords were too strict) or the opposite (if your keywords were too wide). I believe that a lot of papers who might AGREE with the consensus view might not mention "climate change" in their abstract. Like adelady above, I doubt that many sceptics would NOT include those words though. So if anything, Oreskes might have understated the level of consensus! BUT, this needs to be verified. I think a more comprehensive study is needed, one that makes explicit the keyword strategy, and that compares and discusses various alternative strategies (bibliometrics is like statistics, you will get different results with different strategies). I doubt this will result in any significant change in Oreskes' conclusions, but it might help to silence the sceptics... By the way, I am available to do such as study if anyone has funding :)
  8. Sorry for the long comments, but I have another one. The sceptics claim that Oreske type studies miss the point about the political nature of science funding. They say that the reason why so many studies agree with the anthropogenic perspective is that you need to be part of the consensus to get funding. I.e., that scientists follow the money. Another point often made is that money or not, you have more chances of being published if you work within the dominant paradigm. After all, you won't see many Marxist or Libertarian papers in mainstream economics journals. Does this mean that Marxist or Libertarian theory is wrong? One thing for sure, you will never convince Marxists or Libertarians of this by saying that "99% of articles in peer-reviewed economics journals agree with mainstream (neo-classical/neo-keynesian) theory". However, I believe the political nature of science is exagerated in physical sciences (as opposed to social sciences). I believe that in many fields, there is no consensus. So what might be useful to silence the sceptics would be comparative studies - compare Oreskes (or the study I proposed above) to other bibliometric reviews. If you can show that there is an unusually robust consensus in climate science, that might be more convincing...
  9. EnergyPolemist, it would be difficult for Oreskes to have 'possibly understated the level of consensus'... given that she found 0% disagreement. This is not to say that there are not any peer reviewed papers which disagree with the consensus that humans are responsible for most of the warming over the past ~50 years. Oreskes' study didn't find any, but that wasn't meant to suggest that none exist... just to demonstrate that they are so vanishingly rare that the claims of a huge scientific controversy on the issue were nonsense. You'd have to do a much more thorough search to find out that the actual value is something like 0.00023%.
  10. What are people's thoughts about Bray's study, which also refutes that there is a true consensus? Bray, D. (2010). The scientific consensus of climate change revisited. Environmental Science & Policy, 13(5), 340-350. doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2010.04.001 final draft at
  11. Roxanne, I would say that this is an apples and oranges situation, and Bray knows it. As he points out, Oreskes tested for consensus on AGW basics, which at the time were being attacked by "skeptics." Bray wanted to see if there was consensus not on whether it was happening or whether it was us or even whether it was bad, but on specific issues -- sensitivity, model projections, etc. I'll read Bray further and see if I have anything to add. It's all kind of goofy to me, though, since the science is what it is. Consensus convinces the untrained and unfamiliar, or it makes research direction decisions. For the former, all you really need to know is that all of the world's major scientific bodies have issued statements of acceptance and concern. For the latter, read Spencer Weart's work at AIP. There is consensus for a limited range of sensitivity, but there is no consensus on a single figure. That is clear in the literature. If someone wants to turn that into "there is no consensus on AGW," well, they are free to abuse the untrained public. We'll all just deal with the aftermath.
  12. roxanne - Even a quick look at Bray is very informative. After noting that there is a range of opinion (in particular a fair distribution of scientists who feel that the IPCC is either over or under estimating attribution, risks, etc), he concludes:
    When, as is often prematurely claimed, ‘the science is settled’, then, and only then, should the public and politics enter the fray. What this analysis has disclosed is that the science is NOT settled and that perhaps beneficial scientific skepticism, albeit in an infant stage, is growing and may wrest the issue from the hands of politico quasi-scientific institutions that have become fashionable in the era of ‘global’ studies.
    In other words, even though the mean of the surveyed scientists fall right along the generally accepted center of opinion as expressed in the IPCC, Bray wishes to Demand Impossible Perfection, a form of "Moving the Goalposts" - no action until there is unanimous consent (and possibly more than that, I'm certain additional criteria could be added) before acting. There is a consensus, a very strong one - in fact, stronger than the science in the CFC/ozone issue that led to the Montreal Protocols and success with addressing that problem. Brays work (IMO) is simply an attempt hair-splitting to raise doubts and delay action. I am not impressed.
  13. The final paragraph of the conclusion of the Bray paper is truly bizarre. I am sure that the 38% of scientists who participated in the IPCC but thought that the IPCC reports underestimated sea level impacts would be horrified to discover that their disagreement with the 50% who said the IPCC got it right was being used to argue that the science is not settled. If someone really wants to argue inaction, then they need to show the percentage of scientists who support that inaction, not use the scientists who think the situation is even worse than reported to justify their stance. Spelling mistakes aside, there are a few other phrases in the conclusion that make me surprised this passed peer review — the suggestion that the current science is not devoid of "dogma and politics", the need to "wrest the issue from the hands of politico quasi-scientific institutions", the reference to ClimateGate and "the ensuing crisis in climate science concerning transparency", and "it will be interesting to see whether the facts will remain constant and the truth will change or the truth will remain constant and the facts will change". It seems to me that perhaps there is dogma and politics involved, but not where the author indicates.

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