Politifact tells us about American politics and science. We should listen.

Summary: This vignette illustrates important aspects of the climate change debate, and why it has failed to gain sufficient support from Americans to pass large-scale public policy measures. For two decades journalists and scientists have cooperated to produce political propaganda, exaggerating and misrepresenting the work of the IPCC. Their failure should inspire us, showing a resistance to manipulation greater than many people expected (it surprises me).

Orwell: truth as revolutionary act
Attributed to George Orwell. Even if he didn’t say it, he would have agreed.

My post, which started this kerfuffle

In July I published The 97% consensus of climate scientists is only 47%, which showed the hidden results of an excellent survey of scientists’ agreement with the IPPC’s attribution statements about the role of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in global warming. It was high, but lower than usually described — and below the standard for significance. The question has important implications; Obama’s sweeping Clean Power Plan rests on this finding (details here).

it attracted some attention on skeptics’ websites, and pushback from climate activists (both laypeople and scientists). Then GOP presidential candidate Rich Santorum cited this information, and the activists began their usual smear campaign. The facts are quite simple, for those who want to know.

The article at Politifact

Politifact started the cover-up with “Santorum cites flawed climate change figure, and misquotes it” by Linda Qui. She asked me for information. I gave her several thousand words (which I’ll publish next week). She didn’t find anything useful for smearing me, so she ignored it.

Below are the relevant parts of her hit job. My responses follow each quote. Qui tells me she consulted Verheggen and “6 other climate scientists/people who study the consensus issue” “and they all agreed with the survey author”. As you will see below, all that work produced only the weakest of rebuttals. But we can learn much from their attempt.

Truth, not Pravda, Will Make You Free

(a)  Politifact ends with deception

Politifact’s article has a big conclusion, ending with skilled deception.

The real finding of the survey actually backs the idea of scientific consensus on climate change, despite varying levels of confidence, said Verheggen.

“It is clear from our survey that a strong majority of scientists agree that greenhouse gases originating from human activity are the dominant cause of recent warming,” he said. That’s consistent with most of the literature on scientific opinion about climate change, experts agreed.

“You don’t get anywhere near 57% when surveying the broad earth science community, and you get very close to full consensus when you ask the experts in climate science,” said Peter Doran, a professor of earth science at Louisiana State University.

National Science Board member James Powell surveyed what’s actually published in scientific journals, finding that the consensus in the literature is about 99.9%. And multiple independent studies have “asked scientists directly” and found consensus levels of around 97%, said William Anderegg, who studies climate change at Princeton University.  “Those studies were rigorously peer-reviewed and thus should be considered more credible than a blog post that misreads an institute report,” he said.

This is masterful propaganda, and requires an explanation to show that this is not even a rebuttal. The four surveys Politifact mentions asked in general terms about scientists’ agreement that there has been anthropogenic human warming.

  • Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature“ by John Cook et al (Environmental Research Letters, 22 April 2013) looked for studies that “implied that humans were causing global warming”.
  • Powell’s paper used Cook’s data to find studies rejecting “anthropogenic global warming.”
  • Stacy Rosenberg et al (Climate Change, August 2010; ungated copy here) asked scientists if they “can say with great certainty that global warming is a process that is already underway” and that “with great certainty that human activities are accelerating global warming.”
  • Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change” by Dorlan and Zimmerman (EOS, 20 January 2009) asked similar questions: “When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?” and “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?”

These studies (and 5 others described here) find high levels of agreement with those broad statements. But such statements — Gallup-like polls — don’t provide a basis to restructure the world economy. Science is about precision, as found in the IPCC’s attribution statements, which is why they are so valuable. Here’s the key finding in AR5 about greenhouse gases (repeating more precisely the same finding in 2007’s AR4). Compare it with the above questions.

“more than half of the observed increase in GMST {global mean surface temperature} from 1951 to 2010 is … due to the observed anthropogenic increase in GHG {greenhouse gas} concentrations.”

The PBL survey tested agreement with this attribution statement, asking for their “confidence level” about it — more useful than asking about belief in anthropogenic global warming as a true/false proposition. Of course, a precise (i.e., narrower) statement like the IPCC’s will get lower levels of agreement than the broad statements tested in previous surveys.

How many scientists agreed at the “extremely likely” level (which the IPCC defines as 95%+ level, the usual minimum standard for use in science and public policy)?  43% of all 1,868 respondents (47% excluding the “don’t know” group).

How many agreed at the “very likely ” level (90%+ in the IPCC’s reports), which is what AR4 and AR5 assigned? 57% (again, less excluding the “don’t knows”). A majority, although a small one.

These findings are surprisingly low, and so unmentioned by the authors of the PBL study. The reaction to my post shows a strong effort to hide them.

These findings of the PBL report are consistent with the previous studies (agreeing with anthropogenic warming), but provide more detail. By describing them as contradictory Politifact misleads its readers. Verheggen, Doran, Powell, and Anderegg participate in the deception (perhaps ignorantly, as they might not have read my post — but just joined in the smear like good boys).

Politifact’s big conclusion is a magician’s trick, moving the pea while the audience watches from 95% agreement that more than half of warming since 1950 is anthropogenic to the far broader agrees with anthropogenic warming.

That’s how the global warming crusade runs. Deception and misrepresentations are activists’ standard tactics. The campaign’s big lie: if you disagree with predictions of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, then you deny global warming. By repetition, they’ve embedded this “logic” in the minds of millions. They even indoctrinated children, such as this student at U NH, who responds to Cruz’s correct statement that the 2 NASA-funded satellite datasets show a pause in warming since ~2000 by saying “Ted Cruz insults University of New Hampshire, denies the earth is warming“.

(b)  Politifact gives two quotes by one of the PBL survey’s co-authors

“The survey’s lead author, Bart Verheggen, told us that Kummer — and, by extension, Santorum — made a few mistakes.

“First, 22% of climate scientists surveyed didn’t directly answer a question as to what extent greenhouse gases were causing climate change, says Verheggen. Verheggen said it would be more accurate to consider only those who answered the question. (He goes into more detail in a blog post.)”

That’s a valid point of disagreement but hardly a “mistake.” When calculating the degree of affirmative agreement of experts, I believe that including those who answer “don’t know” is appropriate. Especially when asked about the most important issue facing their field, about one of the great threats facing the world.

“Kummer only counts scientists who were 95% or more confident that greenhouse gases drive climate change, when the actual IPCC statement reports a 90% certainty, “

I used the 95% level because it is the minimum bar usually used (i.e., almost always) in both science and public policy. That the IPCC itself reports it at only the 90% level is confirmation of my finding — not a “mistake”. This is not rocket science, or even climate science: it is obvious to anyone familiar with either science or public policy-related research.

(c)  One more round, a bit odd

“This is like something out of that book, How to Lie With Statistics,” said Stephen Farnsworth, who studies climate change and political communication at the University of Mary Washington. “What we’re talking about here is extraordinary cherry-picking. You’re only counting one question in one survey, and you’re talking about a very high (confidence level). Once you start stacking up numbers like this, you’re really distorting the real finding of this research.”

This is quite daft. Perhaps it was Politifact’s excerpt from a more sensible comment by Farnsworth.

  • I examined two questions, not one. They were the most important questions in the survey, about the most important finding of the IPCC. If that’s cherry-picking, they are important cherries.
  • Farnsworth appears to consider unimportant the difference between 90% and 95% confidence levels. The referees of most of the world’s scientific journals disagree. (Of course he knows this, which reveals much about his intent here.)
  • What he calls “stacking up numbers” is everywhere else called basic statistics. I looked at the relevant answer to what was in effect a compound question, and compared the result to the total number of respondents. Standard practice.

About Politifact

As shown here, Politifact is just another political chop shop. Evaluating them would be a major project, hardly worth the time. However, some studies have found evidence of the obvious selection bias, such as by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University; and a study by Eric Ostermeier (Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the U of MN; bio here).

See Politifact Bias for current fact-checking of Politifact (I’ve only spot-checked their articles, and those looked good; please comment if you find otherwise).

Truth in science
Graphic designed by IdeaTree Company.


“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it…”
— Jonathan Swift in 1710 (see other versions of this here).

Politifact consulted 7 experts and got only these weak rebuttals. From this porridge they skillfully constructed propaganda which has gone viral on the Left, convincing to the Left’s poorly informed and gullible readers.

What’s special about this? Politics in America today, like everywhere and always, means saying what will persuade people to support the current campaigns of our elites. It’s no different than selling soap, and just as honest. That journalists participate is common as dirt.

There is an interesting aspect of the climate change campaign: they’ve persuaded almost an entire field of science to participate. We can only guess at the motives, probably the usual mixture of “noble lies” to save the world and self-interest (follow the money). Some scientists participate actively, such as the scientists quoted above. Most participate by silence to criticism of the IPCC as “too conservative” and the increasingly outlandish warnings contrary to the IPCC’s work (e.g. the methane monster).

The amazing aspect of the climate change campaign: despite its support by the Left, by the Pope, by the news media, by the Obama Administration, by those lavishly funding it — the campaign has failed so far. Most Americans rank climate change low among US public policy priorities (see the polls here, and more here). As do those in many other nations, shown by UN’s on-going MyWorld poll.

The scientists supporting the climate change campaign broke the simple rules for gaining the public’s trust, especially honesty and transparency. Depending on how the climate evolves, we might pay dearly for their failings. My next few posts will describe possible consequences, and how we can respond to get a better future.

Yesterday’s post put this in an even larger context: American politics is a fun parade of lies, for which we pay dearly. We can do better if we try.

Truth Will Make You Free

For More Information

See a report confirming the findings describe in this post: “97% consensus? No! Global warming math, myths, and social proofs” by the Friends of Science, 17 February 2014. Thoroughly documented; 48 pages long.

Here’s my email exchange with Politifact. It gives an introduction to this important issue, as I wrote her assuming the she had little knowledge about this aspect of climate change (which proved quite true, but irrelevant to her purpose).

Please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and post your comments. For more information about this vital issue see The keys to understanding climate change, My posts about climate change, and these about the consensus…

14 thoughts on “Politifact tells us about American politics and science. We should listen.”

  1. This is an interesting study because unlike many issues there is big money on both sides (old vs new energy). It would also be interesting to see what degree Kaity got (probably not in a hard science or statistics).
    I see that Mr. Cruz isn’t above dropping the ‘H-bomb’. The last 2 Harvard degrees presidents have somewhat tarnished that mark however.
    One important thing is the cost/benefit ratio. If we could avert global climate change for only $100M it would be a bargain even at 90% certainty.

    1. If in fact global climate change could be averted, and assuming said change is net negative, for only $100B a year, then it would likely be a worthwhile investment even at 50% certainty, very possibly even lower.
      The problem is that the cost is very much higher than that – and the magnitude of the cost is very certainly high single digits of global GDP.

      1. Ticketstopper,

        Nicely said!

        The cost of decarbonization is difficult to measure, in the sense that forcing premature conversion to other energy sources might reduce pollution and prepare for the inevitable long-term increases in the price of petroleum and coal.

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  4. Great work Fabius on the Dutch study. Talk about hanging on their own petard…

    Just to round out insights on public sentiments is an interesting in-depth NYTimes poll…

    It shows that a large chunk of those polled (about 80%) parrot back the Global Warming scare propaganda… but when it comes to specific action– raising taxes on electric power and gasoline to discourage consumption– support drops to 25% and 36% respectively.

    This is how the public really does feel about climate issues… and even though the hysteria is reaching fever pitch for the December Paris Offensive, we already know how how that will turn out. Naomi Klein is already lowering expectations and Ban Ki Moon is calling emergency meetings to arm twist recalcitrants — of which there are many. The developing nations will not commit economic suicide to appease the Green Sky gods… (but will, of course, demand a half trillion in reparations!)

    1. Posa,

      Thank you for pointing to that survey. I had seen it, but stopped reading early on. These single issue surveys usually find high agreement with fear statements, and with the need to “do something”. These mean nothing.

      Polls that ask people to rank their concerns consistently put climate change at or near the bottom: the polls here, and more here). As do those in many other nations, shown by UN’s on-going MyWorld poll.

      After reading your comment, I read the NYT poll to the end. It’s the same pattern: support for bold but vague measures to do something. Such as “Should the federal government limit the amount of greenhouse gases that U.S. businesses put out?” Most people have no idea about the effects or costs of such measures. Proposals to raise taxes or give tax breaks get low support.

      Phrasing the question in terms of issues that have broad support get favorable responses: “Giving tax breaks to companies that burn coal to make electricity if they use new methods to reduce the air pollution being released from their smokestacks.” Rightly so. Coal is a dirty fuel. Pollution control measures on burning coal have made our air cleaner, and logically people support more of them.

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