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Why we need to talk about the scientific consensus on climate change

Posted on 20 November 2014 by John Cook

An interesting sequence of events followed the publication of a scientific paper the Skeptical Science team published in May last year. The paper found a 97% consensus that humans were causing global warming in relevant scientific papers. Finding an overwhelming consensus was nothing new. Studies in 2009 and 2010 also found 97% agreement among climate scientists on human-caused global warming. Nevertheless, the paper attracted much media attention, including tweets from Elon Musk and President Obama.

We expected our work would be attacked from those who reject climate science. We weren’t disappointed. Since publication, hundreds of blog posts, reports, videos, papers and op-eds have been published attacking our paper. A year and a half later, there is no sign of slowing. But this is just the latest chapter in over two decades of manufactured doubt on the scientific consensus about climate change.

What did surprise me were criticisms from scientists who accept the science on climate change. They weren’t arguing against the existence of a consensus, but whether we should be communicating the consensus. This surprised me, as our approach to climate communication was evidence-based, drawing on social science research. So in response, I along with co-author Peter Jacobs have published a scholarly paper summarising all the evidence and research underscoring the importance of consensus messaging.

One objection against consensus messaging is that scientists should be talking about evidence, rather than consensus. After all, our understanding of climate change is based on empirical measurements, not a show of hands. But this objection misunderstands the point of consensus messaging. It’s not about “proving” human-caused global warming. It’s about expressing the state of scientific understanding of climate change, which is built on a growing body of evidence.

Consensus messaging recognises the fact that people rely on expert opinion when it comes to complex scientific issues. Studies in 2011 and 2013 found that perception of scientific consensus is a gateway belief that has a flow-on effect to a number of other beliefs and attitudes. When people are aware of the high level of scientific agreement on human-caused global warming, they’re more likely to accept that climate change is happening, that humans are causing it and support policies to reduce carbon pollution.

Another argument against consensus messaging is that public understanding of the climate issue has moved on from fundamental issues such as the consensus. The evidence says otherwise. Public surveys have found that the public are deeply unaware of the consensus. On average, the public think there’s a 50:50 debate. There are several contributors to this “consensus gap”, including mainstream media’s tendency to give contrarian voices equal weight with the climate science community.

Funnily enough, a third objection to consensus messaging argues that we shouldn’t communicate consensus because public views have not moved on. In other words, the fact that public opinion about consensus hasn’t shifted over the last decade implies that consensus messaging is ineffective.

Dan Kahan argues that consensus is a polarizing message. Liberals are predisposed to respond positively to consensus messaging. Meanwhile, conservatives are more likely to reject the scientific consensus.

Political ideology certainly does influence people’s attitudes towards climate change. The following graph shows data I’ve collected from a representative sample of Americans, asking them how many climate scientists agreed about human-caused global warming. The horizontal access in this graph represents political ideology (specifically, support for an unregulated free market, free of interference from government).

These data come from research by John Cook, taken from a survey of a US representative sample (N=200).

These data come from research by John Cook, taken from a survey of a US representative sample (N=200).

Two important features jump out from this figure.
Click here to read the rest

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Comments 51 to 70 out of 70:

  1. scaddenp Your omission of the words I wrote that precede your opening sentence which were   "they should be financially compensated for these costs by the government with increased taxation providing the funds for this."  totally misrepresents what I wrote.   What I actually wrote was  "Greens and Labor supporters are considered, whether fairly or not, to believe they should be financially compensated for these costs by the government with increased taxation providing the funds for this"  Having totally misrepresented what I wrote you then add insult to injury by writing "When you say people should be "compensated for costs"  I said no such thing and I deplore your tactics of distortion by misquoting what was actually written and having done so completely misquote what I actually.  

    With regard to energy, if people in the Western world, due to government fiat that banned  or severely reduced the use of fossil fuels to generate energy, did not have ready and affordable access to reliable refrigeration or air conditioning or petrol, that government would not survive.  Look at the clamour in Australia when Abbott reinstated indexation to the excise levy on petrol which added about 40 cents per week to the average fuel bill.  Renewables at this moment do not supply constant power and to cope with that erratic supply. power stations burning fossil fuels are still very necessary.  You ask for a solution-nuclear power.  This of course is anathema to the Greens andf their fellow travellers but it provides energy without CO2 production.  Capital costs are high but over time the cost of energy from nuclear power is around 5 cents US per KWHour with wind and solar at around 12 cents US per KWH (

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  2. Ashton, I apologize if I have misrepresented what you said. I found it utterly extraordinary that there is even a perception that "greens and labour believe they should be compensated by increased taxation". What policy by greens or labour could be the result of believing they should be compensated by taxation for not using FF? Who is articulating this misrepresentation? I am not Australia but I havent heard anyone, even from the looney right, suggest such thing here.

    A ban on new coal-fired generation gives you 30 or 40 years to phase out coal. It provides the necessary market forces to drive new development. I have no problem with nuclear - IFR and thorium solutions are appealing and need investment.

    What about the alternative? That everyone in world affected by climate change sends the bills for adaptation to those responsible for the excess CO2? Doesnt that seem fair? Would the cost of changing fuel seem so bad compared to forking out for that? Of course, there is no legal mechanism to enforce such appropriate justice, but I am stunned at the attitude of those who are usually extremely mindful of rights and responsibilities, are quite happy to fight for low FF fuel prices while mostly others pay the environmental costs.

    Levelised costs of generation from various sources from US DoE in Jan 2014 can found here by the way. However, no externalities are shown in that price and that is the key to this problem.

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  3. Ashton @51, it is quite clear from scaddenp's post @50 that he did not misrepresent you.  His entire discussion was disputing your attribution to the left of views he considers to be held by the right.  That is it was directly germain to the point you made, and in no way misrepresented your view.  I will grant that he followed the unfortunate practise of quoting just a key phase to pick out the point being discussed (a practise that should at all times be avoided).  That means his quotation was technically out of context, but his discussion was not and your accusation of misrepresentation is overblown.

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  4. Ashton, I am very interested to hear your views (in the topic I pointed to, not this one) though on what solutions you think would be acceptable to the Right assuming that there is no way to generate cheaper than coal and no argument that mitigating would be cheaper than adaptation. Ie you have to do something about the externality. Some discussion about Friedman's views here I found this refreshing since in my experience, the conservatives will argue night is day rather than admit an externality exists let alone acknowledge that something should be done about it.

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  5. Tom Curtis To paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies"You would say that wouldn't you".  That Grrens and Labor supported compensation for the ETS is shown by the Gillard government's household assistance package via changes to the tax free threshold and direct payments into bank accounts to compensate for expenses incurred due to her "carbon tax".  scaddenp apologies for not replying now,  I'm a bit strapped for time.

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  6. Ashton - thanks for that. I looked it up here.  I stand corrected. I did not know about the "compensation" scheme for the ETS in Australia. And frankly, I think it is absurd - especially the compensation for industries most effected. I would have thought the compensation aspect would largely negate the effectiveness of the scheme at actually reducing carbons. Sounds like too much horse-trading went on to get the scheme through. 

    Done properly, I would expect an ETS or cap-and-trade scheme to be effective if ramped up slowly but there must be real incentives to emit less emissions which compensation would seem to negate. However, I also think an ETS is an example of a market-creation scheme designed to appeal to Right wing ideology, not the Left.

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  7. Further thoughts. On the whole the Left, is also traditionally interested in social equity and in recent years, especially in widening rich/poor gaps. This interest is completely independent on climate matters. You can also guarantee that the rich Right wingers are always going to resist anything that resembles redistribution of wealth from rich to poor. 

    Climate solutions have a tough aspect:

    1/ At the moment, most non-coal alternatives are more expensive than coal. Ergo, eliminating coal is going to cause energy costs to rise and that will flow through in goods and services. 

    2/ Any effective measure to drive down emissions is going to make coal-powered goods and services more expensive. There has to be an attractive differential in consumer price between coal-powered product and non-coal powered product.

    3/ Coal-based industries need to pass into the history books like asbestos,livery stables, stage coaches and to some extent tobacco.  That is especially tough for people directly involved in the industry.

    Will this exacerbate equity issues? If so, (or if it is perceived to be so), then you can expect the Left to interested in countermeasures of some sort. However, I think it would be pointless if the countermeasures did not have the effect of reducing demand for coal-powered goods and services. 

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  8. Ashton @55, yes, I would say that because it is true.  Your attempt to dismiss it shows, however, the poverty of your thought.

    scaddenp @56, I would not, if I were you, trust Ashton's claims or interpretations on any matter.

    Take, for example, the ETS. 

    The most natural way to set up a tradable emissions permit system is to give each citizen or resident (but not corporations) emissions permits on an equal per capita basis, and then require the return of permits from each citizen in proportion to their actual emissions.  Equal per capita because no citizen has a greater right to emit than any other, so that any other distribution by definition represents a preferential subsidy of those who recieve more permits.  Assuming a perfect market, the result will be that those with least emissions, and who can most easilly reduce emissions will sell a portion of their permits to those who want to, or have to emit more.  In general, that means the poorer people will emit less, and recieve a small boost in income from the sale of permits - but that is not compensation.  Just the market in operation.

    Markets are, of course, not perfect, and in this case tracking individual emissions would be far too expensive and intrusive.  Therefore you modify the scheme slightly.  Specifically, you require the wholesale suppliers of emission sources (oil refineries for vehicles, and power stations for electricity) to provide the permits equivelent to the emissions of their products.  The market now consists of primary emitters purchasing permits of private individuals, who recieve their permits free on an equal per capita basis.  

    This still requires that you operate a fairly complex market for the individual permits, however.  So, it may be beneficial to allow the purchase of the permits directly from the government by the primary emitters, and the reimbursement of citizens from that purchase on an equal per capita basis.  If you do that, however, you have essentialy the Rudd/Guilard ETS.  The R/G ETS did vary from that by eliminating the reimbursement on a graduate basis with higher income, and using money gained to fund research, and to protect key industries.  These are, however, in the nature of political compromises necessary to get the bill passed.  The funding paid to lower income earners was called "compensation" but it could with as much truth been called a "dividend".  "Compensation" made for an easier political sell, and hence the name; but you could have a permit and dividend system which differed in no respects from the R/G ETS, so don't let the names hoodwink you.

    If you want to see which side of Australian politics is really all about "compensation" we need ony look at Abbot's scheme whereby emissions are unrestricted, but a reverse auction will be held in which low bidders will be paid by the government to reduce emissions (with not performance requirements to recieve the money).  This is a system in which it is considered a natural right to emit as much as you like, and that therefore one in which you can only be expected to emit less if you are paid to do so.  That is, it is a system in which any reductions in emissions by corporations is to be compensated by taxpayers from general revenue.

    Ashton's description of Australian political proclivities is as biased, and pointless as the rest of his analysis in comments on SkS.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Ashton's "rambling man" schtick is indeed wearing thin. I encourage all commenters to defer commeting on his/her future posts because they are likely to be deleted. 

  9. Tom makes some interesting points. Talking with free markets advocates almost always revealed to me that their views of what a free market should do is give them freebees. Once I was having an exchange over the respective merits of efficient cars vs SUVs. The SUV driver was essentially saying he should have a right to drive anything he wanted. I responded that I agreed but that I shouldn't have to pay for it. He didn't understand that part and said that he had never received money from me. I told him he did every time he gassed up.

    The car he used had a combined mileage of about 15 mpg. My car averages 33mpg. In effect, driving his car amounts to driving 2 of mine. Since the total consumption of the auto park determines demand, his car increased overall demand for refined gas whereas mine overall keeps it down. Demand/offer is normally the main determinant of price in free markets. So, in essence, I was subsidizing his use of a inefficient vehicle by participating in keeping prices lower than they would be if everyone drove vehicles like his. At the pump, however, we pay the same price. It would be much more in line with true free market principles to have a sliding scale for gas prices, indexed on the vehicle consumption, with inefficient vehicles paying more according to their role in pulling the prices up. The interlocutor did not respond.

    To make this a full market solution, all extrernalities would also have to be included. Since the vast majority of these are paid by taxes, people would see their taxes decrease accordingly.

    The whole socialist/free market fake opposition is nonsense. Money in the economy has a way to flow like energy in thermodynamics. Somehow, everything has to be paid for, and the money for it has to come from somewhere. Some costs are easy to hide, defer, or transfer to other economic actors. The immense majority of so-called free market advocates only defend their right to hide, defer or transfer costs to others so that they don't have to pay for it and can therefore make more money themselves. These costs, however, always come back because, like in thermodynamics, nothing can be destroyed or created out of the blue. Deferred costs accumulated over a long time reach staggering amounts.

    Environmental costs are always in these categories (hidden, deferred, transferred). Some of them, like the full extent of ecosystem services are not well understood, and certainly not quantified until they cease to be provided for free (i.e. by factors totally outside of human management). Then, suddenly, we find that we have to pay for it, through the creation of man-made means for providing them, but even when specific actors responsible for their loss can be identified, they never want to pitch in. These actors being human constructs can easily be dismantled and there is nothing left that could be held accountable.

    Free market advocates have a lot of thinking to do and a lot of hypocrisy to clean up when they talk about paying for others expenses. They also have a lot of "be careful what you wish for" to apply. Some free market solutions to problems might come as very painful surprises.

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  10. PhilippeChantreau @59:

    "The car he used had a combined mileage of about 15 mpg. My car averages 33mpg. In effect, driving his car amounts to driving 2 of mine. Since the total consumption of the auto park determines demand, his car increased overall demand for refined gas whereas mine overall keeps it down. Demand/offer is normally the main determinant of price in free markets. So, in essence, I was subsidizing his use of a inefficient vehicle by participating in keeping prices lower than they would be if everyone drove vehicles like his. At the pump, however, we pay the same price. It would be much more in line with true free market principles to have a sliding scale for gas prices, indexed on the vehicle consumption, with inefficient vehicles paying more according to their role in pulling the prices up. The interlocutor did not respond."

    I disagree with the underlined sentence.

    The rest of the paragraph is correct.  Even allowing for the fact that higher demand results in higher production, that only limits the price rise (ignoring economies of scale).  Ergo higher demand by others in general increases the price of those with a lower demand.  That, however, is not a subsidy.  It is the key feature whereby "free markets" allocate scarce resources in proportion to demand.  The feature does mean the oft used analogy for the free market as "the rising tide that floats all boats" is simply false.  It also indicates the highly technical nature of results that prove that "free markets" maximize pareto optimality.  

    To see this, assume that you both have the same income, then his increased expenditure on petrol means a reduced expenditure on some other commodity, lowering its price.  Ergo your "subsidy" of his petrol use is matched by an equal and opposite "subsidy" by him of other goods and services when averaged across the market.  As you equally "subsidize" each other, though on different commodities, talk of subsidies is redundant and merely confuses the issue by implying some additional intervention in addition to the market mechanism where no such intervention exists.

    That being said, genuine regulatory interventions which distort the market do exist, and are accepted (even lauded) by the great majority of "free market" advocates.  The most obvious of these include propriety organizations (whereby investors can make investments without taking legal responsibility for the acts involved in pursuing their investment; and whereby they can also establish disparate market share allowing economic coercion of minor players including consumers); limited liability which is an unjust direct subsidy of investors by the creditors of limited liability companies; and minimum inflation targets by central banks (which subsidize direct investors at the expense of wage earners and people who invest for the future by saving rather than by possessing property or shares, or companies).  Other examples include public roads, and indeed any infrastructure established on land acquired by compulsory acquisition; the existence of a police force and a court system - particularly court systems where the determination of results is significantly determined by the price of your lawyers. 

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  11. Moderator's Comment:

    Ashton: Your most recent post was deleted because it constituted a Moderation Complaint which is prohibited by the SkS Comments Policy.

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  12. Moderator's Comment:

    Ashton: My apologies. I inadvertendly deleted your most recent comment. Please repost it and I will respond to it.

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  13. John Hartz

    Thank you for your courtesy.

    Sorry but I didn't keep a copy but in essence said I couldn't find in Comments Policy any reference to the Moderation Complaint you referred to in post #61, asked if you would advise what the policy said  and apologised if I should have been able to find it.  

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Much to my chagrin, you are correct. The Comments Policy does not explicitly prohibit the posting of moderation complaints. I therefore apologize for incorrectly stating that it did so.

    The deletion of moderation complaints has been a long-standing practice of SkS Moderators. I presume because such complaints are considered to be "off-topic."

    Our exchange has triggered an internal review of this ball-of-wax by the members of the all-volunteer SkS author team.

  14. Here is Ashton's original post, accidently deleted:

    "John Hartz I checked the comments policy but couldn't find anything that made mention of a Moderation Complaint. Would you mind posting that item from the comments policy? It would be much appreciated. My apologies for this request if the item is in fact quite obvious."

    I copied it from the deleted comments screen. also po also 

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Thank you.

    I would also point out that Michael Sweet has access to the delected comments section because he is a member of the all-volunteer SkS authors team.

  15. Thanks John Hart and Michael Sweet your efforts are much appreciated.  John Hartz, thank you for your apology.  As the reason for deleting my post at 61 was incorrrect, will that post now be moved from the deleted comments section and  reposted?

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] No, I will not repost your comment because it constituted a moderation complaint and hence was off-topic. 

  16. Thank you for your reply.  I note you state "The deletion of moderation complaints has been a long-standing practice of SkS Moderators. I presume because such complaints are considered to be "off-topic."  

    So even if something is not stated in the comments  policy as being grounds for deletion, your presumption that it is off topic is sufficient for deletion.   I also presume this post will be deleted but deletion based upon personal interpretation by moderators does add a further layer of complexity to the wording of comments.  Whatever, thanks for the apology and your for admission that moderation complaints are not explicitly merntioned in the comments policy

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] All decisions made by humans are subjective to some degree or another.

    Typically, we employ a three-tiered moderation process. What follows is the standard text of Warning #2. You have been served so to speak.   

    Please note that posting comments here at SkS is a privilege, not a right.  This privilege can and will be rescinded if the posting individual continues to treat adherence to the Comments Policy as optional, rather than the mandatory condition of participating in this online forum.

    Moderating this site is a tiresome chore, particularly when commentators repeatedly submit offensive or off-topic posts. We really appreciate people's cooperation in abiding by the Comments Policy, which is largely responsible for the quality of this site. 
    Finally, please understand that moderation policies are not open for discussion.  If you find yourself incapable of abiding by these common set of rules that everyone else observes, then a change of venues is in the offing.

    Please take the time to review the policy and ensure future comments are in full compliance with it.  Thanks for your understanding and compliance in this matter.

  17. John Hartz   As these posts will be read only by you, if in fact they are not deleted instantly without being read here's a couple of thoughts. However much you may not believe or even  like it,  I do have a  PhD (from UWA) based on laboratory experimentation using biochemical, immunological and molecular biology techniques, have published in my field  and was a academic for over 30 years, reaching professorial status.  Have you noticed that when topics attract posters such as myself, the comments section is often much enlarged?  This seems to be  as comments that disturb the equanimity of the usual posters causes them to jump to the defence of their beliefs. Let's look at Mr Cook's graph of the political persuasions of 200 US citizens.  Not one comment that 200 is a very small sample size or that as  error bars weren't included so the statistical validity of the conclusions is not assessable.  Just a small point that no doubt contravenes some aspect of comments policy, but your usual cohort of commenters don't critically assess the topics but just say' "Well done, that clarifies that"  or "This should crush sceptical opinions" with no attempt to critically appraise the results.  When commenters such as I comment then the paper is often discussed in detail as your usual commenters are shaken out of their lethargic acquiescence to show  this impudent intruder that their science is impeccable.  I do hope you don't exclude those who are less convinced, at the moment, that the current climate change is due solely to human influence  as the resulting discussions sharpen the wits of all concerned and lead to a much more forensic analysis of the topic in question than otherwise would be the case.


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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] The antagonistic and condescending tone of your comments is a major reason why they are being scrutinized closely by moderators. Posting comments on this website is a privilege, not a right. If you cannot engage in civil discourse and abide by the SkS Comments Policy, you will forfeit this privilege.The choice is yours to make.

  18. Ashton...  Your comment @67 is just silly. What attracts commenters is when people, such as yourself, post comments that contradict the large body of research on climate issues. This is what SkS is all about. We communicate what the research says.

    The sample size related to John's graph above is really not that critical an issue (as far as I can see). There is nothing being claimed that rises to the level suggesting the data may be in error. It clearly is a small sample, but if you think it's an interesting element of the research that might be wrong, by all means, we would all be interested to see a larger sampling that showed something different. 

    I think people here don't question the number much simply because it seems to reflect our general experiece dealing with various people who reject or accept AGW. The precision of the data likely wouldn't change overall perception of the data.

    But again, if you think for some reason the small sample size is introducing misleading conclusions, then please, do more research! There's a good paper to be written if you come up with a different conclusion, and it's one that would be of keen interest to everyone at SkS and John Cook as well, I'm sure.

    That's how science works. You don't like the methods or results. Do your own research and see what you come up with. 

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  19.  Ashton,

    Your claim that only when you comment are topics closely examined is false.   This post attracted a lot of attention because it was poorly supported.  The general comments were that it could not be supported and the references were not properly peer reviewed.  Renewable energy and nuclear also get a lot of discussion. 

    Perhaps you should consider if your comments are contributing to more general understanding or just the noise.  You have attracted a lot of attention from the moderators, which generally indicates more  noise.  Reviewing your posts on this thread I see a lot of political commentary, mostly disparaging those you disagree with, and little science.  Perhaps if you starting emphasizing science content you would have less trouble with the mods.

    There used to be a lot of skeptical posters who supported their posts with data and they were well received.  Now there is little to support the skeptical argument so skeptics leave when their arguments are shown to be unsupported.

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  20. Ashton @67:

    With regard to sample size, first it is apparent that you are not aware of the standard practise in social sciences in which small sample sizes are the norm.  They are the norm because, given a fair sample, that is all that is needed to give determinative results. discusses the issue, and displays the following table:

    Using their calculator, we can see that with a population of 300 million, the required sample size for a 5% margin of error with a 95% confidence interval rises from the 384 required for a population of one million, to 385.  Alternatively, using the second section of the same calculator we can determine that for a population of 300 million, with a sample size of 200, you have a 6.93% margin of error for a 95% confidence interval and a 9.11% margin of error for a 99% confidence interval.  (Note:  That means that 95% of repeat surveys with the same sample size would fall within 6.93% of the values given in the survey conducted, assuming representative samples.) 

    These are approximate values.  The formulas for more exact values can be found here

    Applied to the graph above, the error margin on the margin in the y-axis between any two values is 9.8%, less than a third of the difference between those most strongly supporting and those most antipathetic towards free market ideologies.  Therefore, even with so small a sample size, the results hold.  It is unclear, due to the small sample size, whether or not the "cultural bias" is closer to 28 or 48%, though it is most likely near to 38%.

    I have not commented on this before because I have a passing familiarity with sociological research and am aware of the small sample sizes typically used.  Frankly, in sociology (and social psychology) a greater concern is the frequent use of university students to form the sample, a group that cannot be considered representative on a number of criteria.  John Cook to his credit paid for a professional survey of a representative population, with the result that his sample size was limited by budget, but his results were more reliable than if he had taken the cheap option of surveying 500 university students.

    I am also aware that the graph is supposed to be indicative rather than definitive.

    So, let's chalk this up as an example where your criticism introduced discussion of a significant point in the OP.  Your discussion, however, merely waved a flag with not attempt to actually determine the significance of the point you were raising.  Further, with more knowledge your flag is seen to not raise a significant point.  These features are typical, in my experience, of the best offerings of scientific pseudo-skeptics such as yourself.  At their worst, they are simply wrong, self contradictory and (in many cases) dishonest.

    In contrast to the pseudo-skeptics, regular commentors here have a history of raising genuine issues.  Not that we always pick them up, but when they are brought to our attention by questions or comments, we have an even better record of supporting the valid points.

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