Upcoming Critique of Oreskes Findings on ‘Consensus’ Unlikely to Prove Convincing

The climate change blog world has been abuzz about a pending study said by some to challenge a widely-cited 2004 analysis suggesting a strong scientific “consensus” on anthropogenic climate change.

But whether and where the much-ballyhooed analysis sees the light of day in a peer-reviewed form appears very much in doubt.

For weeks, the study had been reported to be pending publication in an obscure social science journal. That prospect was raising hopes among climate change doubters that it would refute a widely reported 2004 study by Naomi Oreskes finding no peer-reviewed studies challenging the scientific consensus.

There appear, however, to be substantial hurdles before most impartial observers will conclude that it reaches that goal.

The new study has been the subject of supportive advertisements by The Heartland Institute in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal after an abstract was apparently leaked to the online “Daily Tech“.

The research, by medical researcher and endocrinologist Klaus-Martin Schulte, initially was reported to be pending publication in Energy and Environment. That journal is carried in 26 libraries worldwide and not included on the standard list of peer-reviewed journals. Even unpublished, however, the piece has generated a substantial buzz ñ for and against ñ on online blogs closely watched by climate change activists.

Judging from the leaked abstract, the Schulte study concludes that original research by Oreskes, of the University of California, San Diego, is not supported by a recent review of 539 papers published since her study.

The leaked abstract of Schulte’s paper suggests rather that 32 of the 539 papers re-examined “explicitly or implicitly reject the consensus …. There appears to be little evidence in the learned journals to justify the climate-change alarm that now harms patients.”

Weighing Three Possibilities

Is Oreskes’s highly publicized research flawed? Was she correct, but the consensus has wilted in the past few years? Or is Schulte’s work flawed?

In her 2004 research study in Science magazine, Oreskes found no peer-reviewed study explicitly disagreeing with the consensus viewpoint expressed in the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Assessment Report that “most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.”

The Oreskes paper itself has attracted considerable media attention, and Vice President Gore pointed to it in his film “An Inconvenient Truth” to help bolster his view of the scientific consensus on climate change. Advocates for action against greenhouse gases frequently point to the Oreskes research to support their positions.

The Schulte critique of Oreskes’s paper is not the first seeking to discredit her conclusions. An editorial advisory board member of the same Energy and Environment journal earlier analyzed Oreskes’s data and pointed to 34 papers he said specifically rejected the consensus position. The author of that study, Benny Peiser, self-published his paper on his own website after Science had rejected it.

But after his work was criticized by a number of climate scientists, who said most of those 34 papers did not actually reject the IPCC consensus, Peiser later retracted his critique, saying only one of the 34 papers had actually rejected the IPCC position. That one paper, from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin, was not peer-reviewed and had not been included in Oreskes’s original analysis.

In an exchange with Oreskes published on the website of a group called Science and Public Policy Institute, Schulte pointed to a number of studies he said had been reviewed by Oreskes in her original research. He said they appear to disagree with the IPCC position. However, his list is very similar to the now-retracted list of articles from Peiser’s critique, even echoing some citation errors from Peiser’s paper. (Schulte does not cite Peiser as a source.)

So if the Schulte research falls short of refuting Oreskes’s study, could it be that the consensus Oreskes pointed to has withered in the past few years? Apparently not, judging from the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report and from the statement of the Joint Science Academies of the G8+5 countries.

Perhaps Schulte was asking a different question than Oreskes. Oreskes basically was looking for papers specifically disagreeing with the consensus position. Schulte, on the other hand, reverses the burden of proof: he portrays the absence of an endorsement of the consensus position in most of the papers as indicating an absence of consensus.

On that point, Oreskes offers this analogy: She says one could hardly describe the failure of evolutionary biology papers to endorse the theory of evolution as evidence of no consensus among them on Darwinian evolution.

Without knowing specifically which 32 papers Schulte identifies as implicitly or explicitly rejecting the consensus position on climate change (because his full study itself has not yet been published), firm conclusions remain elusive. Lord Christopher Monckton, in the United Kingdom, however, has said seven abstracts in the Schulte paper explicitly reject the consensus position.

That view is in turn is challenged in a detailed analysis finding that only three of those seven abstracts reject the consensus position, with the other four remaining neutral or implicitly supporting the consensus.

Perhaps in response to the online controversy generated by leaked versions of the article, the journal in which it was to appear, Energy and Environment, appears to have reversed course. Its editor, Dr. Sonja A. Boehmer-Christiansen said in an e-mail to Richard Littlemore of desmogblog.com that the Schulte paper “was a bit patchy and nothing new … not what was of interest to me; nothing has been published.”

While proponents of Schulte’s findings may no longer rightly claim the mantle of peer review, the article has already been spread relatively widely in some media circles. Printed retractions will inevitably reach a much smaller audience. The situation demonstrates the dangers of reporting, perhaps particularly in the popular media, on “sensational” and “breakthrough” research not yet formally published.

So it appears that Schulte’s research is unlikely to unseat the continued view of a consensus in the peer-reviewed literature and among most climatologists that humans are the primary driver of current climate change as a result of the continuing buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Critics of that consensus likely will have to look elsewhere to support their position.

In the end, determining if studies implicitly support a particular position or are neutral is inherently somewhat subjective. Given their policy and political importance, competing analyses on all sides of many global warming issues certainly will continue to be published.


For Media, Some Tips to Keep in Mind

Journalists covering climate change can expect to see more fur fly: So-called contrarians and the think tanks and politicians backing them will make much of the new Schulte study. Environmentalists and those generally convinced by the IPCC and other scientific organizations’ analyses certainly will pooh-pooh the research.

For journalists wondering how and whether to report on the likely contretemps, a few key points might be instructive:

  • The full Schulte work is likely to find its way to the public one way or another, and it could well become an increasing focus among pro- and con- climate change partisans.
  • Remember that Oreskes’s review of papers published in the ISI Web of Science database from 1993 to 2003 found none explicitly disagreeing with the 2001 IPCC Third Assessment Report that “most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.” Oreskes wrote at the time that “very few papers analyzed said anything explicit at all about the consensus position.”
       No real surprise there. Astronomers don’t write peer-reviewed reports saying they explicitly endorse the Sun’s rising in the east; they take it for granted. Earth scientists don’t specifically say that they explicitly endorse plate tectonics.
  • Schulte, in the reply to Oreskes posted on that same Science and Public Policy Institute website, listed a number of papers he said were in the original Oreskes study but which Schulte maintained disagree with the consensus position. But many of the publications in Schulte’s list come from the now-retracted Peiser critique list, even repeating some of the same citation errors from Peiser’s work. The Schulte work does not cite Peiser as a source.
  • Also worth considering: Most general circulation media, certainly including TV and most daily newspapers, are unlikely to ever cover the Schulte research in the first place. But reporters covering climate nonetheless can expect to hear about it from advocates for and against, and those impressions may well be reported at some level. Some experts on “framing” of important public policy issues might think it at least a partial victory for climate skeptics to see the Oreskes study criticized at all, even if the criticisms are generally dismissed. The theory here is that voicing criticisms of Oreskes’s research diminishes public confidence in that research, even if the criticisms are judged to be unfounded.

Zeke Hausfather

Zeke Hausfather, a data scientist with extensive experience with clean technology interests in Silicon Valley, is currently a Senior Researcher with Berkeley Earth. He is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum (E-mail: zeke@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @hausfath).
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