Guest essay by Peter O’Brien
I gave up reading Robert Ludlum novels about forty years ago. The highly convoluted and improbable plots became just too irritating. But recently, thanks to Eric Worrall at Wattsupwiththat, I dipped into a new contribution to the genre – a piece with the title The ‘Alice in Wonderland’ mechanics of the rejection of (climate) science: simulating coherence by conspiracism. A bit clunky don’t you think? Having read the article, I thought a rather more apt title, in keeping with the well tested formula of the aforementioned Ludlum, might be The Lewandowsky Hypothesis, so that is the title I shall use throughout the remainder of this piece.
Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook (a co-author), the Laurel and Hardy of the CAGW scam, have a theory that CAGW sceptics ignore the ‘vast body of knowledge’ available to them in order to indulge conspiracy fantasies, what they call ‘conspiracist ideation’. They are determined to expose CAGW sceptics as conspiracy theorists and have published a number of papers on the topic.
I would not normally concern myself with these two clowns, but they have achieved a certain influence when someone like the President of the United States quotes from their discredited work and their latest offering contains such egregious distortions of logic that it just has to be called out.
The Lewandowsky Hypothesis does not appear to be a peer reviewed paper, simply a published article and the funding sources are quoted as:
a Wolfson Research Merit Award from the Royal Society to the first author (Lewandowsky). During part of this work, the first author was also supported by a grant from the Australian Research Council and he received funding from the Psychonomic Society
Lewandowsky has been resident at the University of Bristol since the middle of 2013, so one wonders how he would qualify for an Australian Research Council grant for a very minor work completed in 2016. In fact there is a grant of $434,200 that was awarded jointly to Ullrich Ecker of the University of Western Australia and Gordon Brown from the University of Warwick (presumably not the former British PM but who knows?) and Lewandowsky for a project on the psychology of misinformation, whose output will, apparently, contribute to:
the formulation of specific communication strategies to reduce the impact of misinformation on society.
But this article to which I am referring is not a product of that project. It seems to be a just private initiative on the part of Lewandowsky, Cook and another author from Indiana University. More about funding later.
But what about the article itself?
Well, the problems begin in the abstract which opines that because sceptics can’t offer an alternative view to CAGW then they must be wrong. They offer the view that ‘something must be wrong’, as a response by sceptics to the failure of the CAGW hypothesis to represent the empirical real world observations, is not valid unless sceptics can offer an alternative explanation.
To begin with this turns the scientific method on its head. Sceptics do not need to offer an alternative explanation, although, indeed, many of them do. Science is based upon testing a hypothesis against a null hypothesis. In the case of CAGW, the hypothesis is not that the world is warming and it is not that CO2 contributes to warming. The hypothesis is that human emissions of CO2 are warming the world to a dangerous (catastrophic) degree. The null hypothesis, which does not have to be proved, is that climate is changing primarily under the influence of natural factors as it has always done in the past.
So what is the Lewandowsky hypothesis? It is that sceptics hold mutually contradictory positions on many aspects of CAGW i.e. that what they profess lacks ‘coherence’, which is a classic symptom of ‘conspiracism’ ergo that sceptics are effectively in denial of the science simply in order to propagate a particular political position. They use as an example of this phenomenon the proposition, apparently held by some, that Princess Diana was both murdered and also that she faked her own death. They give no evidence as to how many deluded souls adhere to this fantasy. It is a laughable analogy.
In their abstract they foreshadow the type of argument that abounds in the body of the piece. Here they suggest that claims ‘the globe is cooling’, ‘observed warming is natural’ and ‘the human influence does not matter because warming is good for us’ are mutually contradictory opinions. They do not specify who made these claims or anything of their context. If one argues, as sceptics do that, there was warming in the latter part of the 20th century but due mainly to natural causes, that this degree of warming was beneficial and that, in the 21st century, there has been no statistically significant warming and there may even be a cooling trend, these are not mutually exclusive. Not off to a good start.
The most egregious example of logical legerdemain employed by the authors actually leapt out of the page at me during my initial cursory perusal of the piece. In paragraph 1.3.1, titled ‘Climate sensitivity is low but it is high’, they address the sceptical claim that climate sensitivity is low. They correctly define climate sensitivity:
‘One of the most important, but uncertain, variables that determines the extent of future warming is climate sensitivity, defined as the warming that is ultimately expected in response to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentrations from preindustrial times (e.g., Lewandowsky et al. 2014)’
Don’t you just love Lewandowsky’s conceit, attributing this definition to himself, and he not even a climate scientist!
They point out that sceptical scientists, such as Professor Judith Curry (and, in fact, many others) favour a low estimate for climate sensitivity (eg 1.5C). They also point out that sceptics believe the climate has changed significantly in the past, implying that, in this respect, sceptics are now adopting a contrary position that climate sensitivity is actually high. So, in the space of two contiguous paragraphs, they’ve changed the definition of climate sensitivity to mean the response of the climate to any external forcing not just CO2, as summarized below:
Either the climate changed in the past because it is highly sensitive to external forces, in which case we are facing considerable future warming, or its sensitivity to the forces triggered by increasing CO2 concentrations is low, in which case the climate should not have changed much in the past. Except that it did.
They gloss over the fact that the IPCC also accepts that climate changed in the past and that 1.5C is within the range estimated for climate sensitivity by the IPCC itself! That excerpt alone is sufficient to condemn this diatribe.
Most of the rest of the article is full of strawman arguments that I won’t go into in detail because they are just a rehashing of pro/con arguments that are mostly taken out of context and with suitable distortions of the sceptic arguments. But at para 1.3.8 there is a table of examples of supposedly contradictory positions taken by sceptics in general. I reproduce it here so that you can see it is pretty incoherent and has no context whatsoever:
Sample of additional incoherent arguments
Table 2 in the same paragraph provides a list of supposedly contradictory opinions held by the same person. Some of them, on the face of it, may appear contradictory but without context one cannot be sure. In fact, the lack of context throughout this entire piece is a major failing. When attempting to discredit someone on the basis of what they have said in the past, proper context is paramount.
Here are just two examples from this table (there are others) where the statements are not even prima facie contradictory:
You will have noticed that the authors have distinguished between a body of supposedly contradictory opinions that supposedly represent the collective view of sceptics and some examples of specific supposed contradictions on the part of individuals.
They obviously recognise that the first class of ‘contradictions’ is a rather weaker body of evidence against sceptics than those that they can sheet home to specific individuals. They have addressed this in a paragraph 1.4 titled ‘Individual cognition vs, group behaviour’.
Our analysis was performed at the aggregate level; that is, we considered the incoherence of collective argumentation among a “community” of like-minded individuals as if it were a single intellectual entity. It is possible, therefore, that individuals within this community would only hold one or the other of two incoherent views, and that each person considered in isolation would not be incoherent. In that case, one could argue that there is merely a heterogeneity of views in the “community” of denialists, which might in turn be interpreted as being an indication of “healthy debate” or “scientific diversity” rather than incoherence.
Sounds fair. But wait:
We reject both the possibility and its hypothetical implication.
Of course you do!
To cut a long story short, their tedious reasoning goes back to the original claim that sceptics must offer a coherent alternative view to the CAGW hypothesis. They argue that CAGW adherents have a coherent view across multiple disciplines, even to the extent of rationalizing conflicting views about the warming hiatus (or as I like to call it warming stasis):
Second, the theoretical coherence of consensual climate science does not prevent robust debate. One striking example involves the recent controversy about the so-called “pause” or “hiatus” in global warming in the early 2000’s. Some scientists have argued against the existence or special status of this “pause” (e.g., Cahill et al. 2015; Foster and Rahmstorf 2011; Foster and Abraham 2015; Karl et al. 2015; Lewandowsky et al. 2015c, d) whereas others have taken a contrary position (Fyfe et al. 2016; Trenberth 2015). We therefore argue that science achieves its coherence through a constant self-correction process (e.g., Alberts et al. 2015; Longino 1990, 2002) that occurs through peer-review, journal articles, conference communications, graduate training, mentoring, and so on. Scientific debate is a key element of achieving scientific coherence (Leuschner 2012). No such corrective processes can be observed in denialist discourse which focuses entirely on its opposition to mainstream science and does not entail any debate among the incoherent positions we have revealed in this article.
So somehow the emergence of differences, which, incidentally don’t appear to have been resolved, regarding the ‘stasis’ within the CAGW camp is healthy, but its recruitment within the sceptic camp, which first drew attention to it, is reprehensible.
In fact, for the CAGW hypothesis to be accepted it should have coherence. But it’s the lack of coherence that drives sceptics, who, contrary to the assertions in The Lewandowsky Hypothesis, do in fact offer alternative explanations as to what is driving the climate in the 20th and 21st centuries.
As just one example, Dr David Evans has developed an alternative hypothesis, The Notch Delay Hypothesis which predicts a modest cooling by the year 2022 at the latest. http://joannenova.com.au/2016/09/new-science-26-the-solar-fall-and-lag-means-david-evans-model-predicts-cooling-is-just-around-the-corner/
And unlike the CAGW troughers, Evans, who has funded all his own work, concedes that if his prediction fails then so too does his hypothesis.
The peer reviewed works of Lewandowsky and Cook, relating to CAGW ‘denial’ have been routinely and rapidly debunked in the past. At the time I was content to simply accept the findings of their debunkers. Now, on the basis of what I’ve read in The Lewandowsky Hypothesis, I feel justified in having done so.
If the quality of the work of the ‘climate scientists’ that Lewandowsky seeks so enthusiastically to defend is as shoddy as his own, then God help us.
Finally, let me return to the question of funding. The fact that Lewandowsky provides a list of acknowledgements suggests he was specifically remunerated for this work. The provision of funds by The Royal Society and the Psychonomic Society are of no interest to me. But, as an Australian taxpayer, I am interested in the use of Australian Research Council grant money. A search of the ARC Grants database reveals two recent grants of which Lewandowsky appears to be a joint beneficiary.
The first of these, $215,913 over 3 years, titled ‘LP120100224 Creating a climate for change: from cognition to consensus’, was awarded in 2012. It was administered by the University of New South Wales and, although Lewandowsky is not named, participating organisations are listed as the University of Western Australia, the Department of Climate Change and the University of Plymouth. Its synopsis is:
Climate change is a significant contemporary issue, and communicating the complexities of the terminology and the data is a major modern challenge. This project will apply principles of cognitive and social psychology to determine the most effective methods for promoting an understanding of the scientific dimensions of the issue. The research is significant because it provides a coherent theoretical framework for identifying the psychological mechanisms underlying cognition and commitment at both an individual and collective level. The outcome will be a body of evidence that will inform strategies and policies for communication of complex scientific questions.
The second grant is the one I referred to earlier which commenced in 2016.
I suspect the grant that Lewandowsky is acknowledging in relation to The Lewandowsky Hypothesis article is the first. Admittedly, if I am right, the amount of money involved cannot be huge but nonetheless I have a few questions:
– Did Lewandowsky draw down funds against that grant for the production of this article?
– If so, how much?
– Was this article a deliverable of project LP120100224?
– If so, would the ARC agree that this was money well spent?
– Which of the 10 papers that Lewandowsky has co-authored since 2015 (http://www.bris.ac.uk/expsych/people/stephan-lewandowsky/publications.html 5) is the substantive product of LP120100224?
Regardless of the above, I wonder how the ARC would consider that distorting the arguments of a huge body of people, among them many prominent scientists such as Professor Judith Curry, Professor Richard Lindzen, Dr Roy Spencer, Dr John Christy, Dr Garth Paltridge, Dr David Evans to name but a few, in order to classify them as somehow mentally disordered would inform strategies and policies for communication of complex scientific questions? By putting them in re-education facilities a la 1984?
Note from Anthony. Most often when I think of Stephan Lewandowsky’s and John Cook’s attempts to malign people such as myself for our informed opinions, I’m reminded of this famous scene from the movie Cool Hand Luke (1967), starring Paul Newman. Newman played the role of a non-conformist, and as such found himself in a chain gang camp, essentially a “re-education” camp.
In my opinion, this quote from the movie rather sums up how climate proponents view climate skeptics, because they have this ongoing belief that it’s a communications problem, rather than a science problem:
Captain, Road Prison 36: What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach. So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it… well, he gets it. I don’t like it any more than you men.
Simply put, Lewandowsky and Cook view themselves as climate police, or as enforcers of dogma for “the cause”. Perhaps someday they will self-diagnose their own psychological issues with noble cause corruption.