Guest essay by Brandon Shollenberger
Last week, John Cook published a piece in the Europhysics News magazine in which he, quite literally, fabricates a quote. You can see the details here, but basically, he took the old quote about a campaign to “reposition global warming as theory (rather than fact)” and changed it to “reposition fact as theory.” It’s mind-boggling.
Even if John Cook didn’t make the image himself, it’s hosted on Skeptical Science. He chose to publish it in this article. He is fully responsible for publishing a fabricated quote whether or not he created the fabrication.
In my first post here, I accused John Cook (the propietor of Skeptical Science) of lying about evidence. He had written an article which misrepresented multiple sources and even fabricated a quote. To this day, that fabricated quote remains in the piece. John cook has made no indication he thinks it needs to be changed (though he has fixed the quote elsewhere). This led me to observe:
Additionally, you have not apologized for fabricating the quote or explained how it happened. That is troubling. One may reasonably wonder what would have happened had I not happened to randomly read this piece and check your reference (something you apparently didn’t do). Had I not caught the mistake, would it ever have been fixed? Nobody will ever know.
Being accurate with facts, quotes and references is a fundamental aspect of reporting. If you are as apathetic toward such glaring failures in this regard as you seem to be, why should anyone trust what you say? Why should anyone trust you the next time you “quote” a source?
I can now confirm the answer to my question is, “We shouldn’t.” Almost exactly one month after that piece was published, John Cook published another article with a fabricated quote. Figure 2 of that piece includes a this blurb:
Western Fuels Association
$510,000 campaign to
“reposition fact as theory”
This quote is apparently a bastardization of an actual quote which suggested people “reposition global warming as theory (rather than fact).” A Google search for John Cook’s exact quote finds two results. A Google search for the actual quote finds tens of thousands of results, including a paper Cook was the lead author for. This shows Cook is aware of the actual quote, and had he done anything to check his figure, he’d have seen his version was wrong.
Cook fabricating two quotes in two months is bad enough, but nobody is catching him. I don’t read everything he writes, and I’m the only one who caught either of these. How many fabrications have I not caught? There’s no way to know.
And this isn’t a trivial matter like Cook claimed his last misquotation was. The difference between the quotes is enormous. Many people don’t believe global warming is a fact (by definition, it isn’t one). If they’re right, repositioning global warming as a theory rather than fact is a good thing because its true. Even if one doesn’t agree with those people, their behavior is still honest and well-intentioned.
John Cook’s quote requires the opposite. A person cannot seek to “reposition fact as theory” without seeking to intentionally mislead people. That means Cook accuses those people of being lying bastards by making **** up.
And it doesn’t end there. Cook’s piece says:
The result is a significant “consensus gap” between public
perception and the actual 97% scientific consensus (see Figure 3). Public polls have found that nearly half of the American public think climate scientists are still in disagreement . In my own research, when I asked Americans what percentage of climate scientists agree on human-caused global
warming, the average answer was 55%.
Reference six links to this document. A figure on its seventh page and a data table on its eighteenth page provide data for how many people believe:
There is a lot of disagreement among scientists about GW
In both cases, the value given is 36%. This must be what Cook was referring to as no other part of the document discusses anything close to what he said, but 36% is not “nearly half.” 1/3rd is not 1/2th. Cook is, once again, making **** up.
Not only is that inexcusable, it should make wonder skeptical when Cook refers to what he found, “In [his] own research.” This skepticism should be further fueled by the fact Cook didn’t provide a reference for his work. Why would someone refer to work without any providing any reference for it? How can they get away with it?
I can’t answer the latter question. The former question is easy to answer though. John Cook didn’t provide a reference for his work because no reference exists. A copy of the Figure 3 can be found here on Skeptical Science. This is said about it:
Public perception (55%) comes from a survey conducted by John Cook on a representative USA sample, asking the question “How many climate experts agree that the global warming we are witnessing is a direct consequence of the burning of fossil fuels by humans?” Participants were requested through professional survey firm Qualtrics.
That’s it. No publication information. No link or reference. No data or supporting documentation. Nothing at all other than John Cook’s word.
I can’t imagine a world in which that should that be enough from anyone. I certainly can’t imagine why anyone should be expected to trust Cook’s description when he makes **** up time and time again, even in this one piece.
Two last observations. First, while these accusations of fabricating quotes are relatively new, I’ve accused Cook of lying before. Second, at the bottom of the piece’s first page, there’s an unmatched right parenthesis where it says:
As scientific consensus strengthened, efforts to confuse the
public about the level of agreement in the scientific community intensified as documented in Figure 2).
UPDATE/CORRECTION: Brandon Schollenberger writes in comments.
Welp, this is awkward. It turns out while criticizing Cook for getting the quotation wrong, I got it wrong too. The parenthetical should say “not fact” instead of “rather than fact.” A little time with Google shows this is a common mistake, and it’s even made in Al Gore’s, An Inconvenient Truth. I saw the phrasing I used on Wikipedia (which has had that phrasing for six years), used Google to search for it, found dozens of sources using it (including Al Gore’s), and copied and pasted.
This doesn’t change anything I said, and it is certainly understandable how I made the mistake. Still, it’s embarrassing.