So, Richard Tol has a fourth draft of his climate consensus paper. I don’t really want to say too much more about this as I’ve discussed his draft paper before (here and here). My basic view hasn’t really changed. Richard and I have also exchanged a few tweets about this work and they’ve been perfectly congenial exchanges.
I was, however, going to make a couple of general comments. In the paper Richard says
Consensus or near-consensus is not a scientific argument. Indeed, the heroes in the history of science are those who challenged the prevailing consensus and convincingly demonstrated that everyone else thought wrong.
A claim of consensus serves a political purpose, rather than a scientific one.
Yes, I don’t think that anyone is claiming that the existence of a consensus means that the science is settled. The motivation behind this work, as far as I understand it, is that some are claiming that no such consensus exists. Richard himself acknowledges that the basic results of this paper are probably correct. That there probably is good agreement, in the scientific literature, about the fundamentals of global warming. That is really all that this paper was trying to illustrate. It’s because this has become a political issue that such a paper may be necessary. In most fields, it wouldn’t be necessary.
Richard goes on to say
Others, however, are concerned about the standards of proof in climate research. They would emphasize the complexities of the climate system and highlight lack of rigour in peer-review, substandard statistical analysis, and unwillingness to share data. These people are unlikely to be convinced by Cook et al. It is well-known that most papers and most authors in the climate literature support the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change. It does not matter whether the exact number is 90% or 99.9%. These people are concerned about the quality of the research. More papers does not mean better papers.
In fact, the paper by Cook et al. may strengthen the belief that all is not well in climate research. I argue below that data are hidden, that the conducted survey did not follow best practice, that there are signs of bias in the data, and that the sample is not representative. In sum, the conclusion of Cook et al. does not stand. It may well be right, but it does not stand.
So basically Richard appears to be saying, people don’t trust climate scientists for various reasons and the Cook et al. study is adding to this concern as it is biased, lacks rigour, is not representative and hence, although maybe essentially correct, does not stand.
Here’s where I think I have the biggest issue with what appears to be motivating Richard Tol. I’m not a climate scientist, but am an active researcher in the physical sciences. I will typically make my data available to those who ask, but I’m expected to do research, teach and help with the administration of my department. I don’t really have the resources to properly prepare all my codes and data for use by the general public. I have no strong objection to doing so. It’s really just a matter of time and money (although I will say that I would be slightly concerned about how many would actually be able to understand what the data was telling them and what the codes were really doing). Academic researchers don’t, typically, have hordes of support staff to help them with all the administrative work associated with making codes and data accessible to others.
Having become interested in global warming/climate science I am, however, quite impressed by what is available. I can access all sorts of datasets. I can access various online codes (MODTRAN for example). I’m sure that there are examples of those unwilling to share data or who are secretive, but – by and large – it all seems quite open to me. It seems quite likely that there are those who would like people to believe that there are fundamental problems with climate science. That there are issues with peer-review – there are, but it’s not unique to climate science. That there are some papers that aren’t very good – indeed, but again not unique to climate science. That some won’t share their data – I’m sure this is true, but it seems as though a remarkable amount is actually available. However, it doesn’t seem – to me – that there is any real evidence of a particular problem with climate science. What there is evidence of is people who want to believe – or to make others believe – that such problems do exist.
Essentially, this is what Richard appears to be doing. The Cook et al. paper is a study that appears to produce results that Richard doesn’t actually dispute. He, however, is going to publish a paper telling everyone that, despite this, the method is “flawed”, the results “unfounded”, and the authors “secretive and incompetent”. He’s then suggesting that this could be perceived by some as a metaphor for climate science in general and that, consequently, the Cook et al. study may do more harm than good. Well maybe, but that seems to be because Richard has chosen to tell people that there are problems with the study, not that there necessarily are any problems.
One might argue that if there were fundamental problems, then even if the results appear reasonable, the study would be flawed. In general I would agree. However, much of what Richard is highlighting either seems to be minor, seems to be his opinion about how a study should be carried out, or are issues that might have no effect on the overall result. In fact, Richard’s paper makes claims about inconsistent ratings and biases but it’s very unclear how he gets this result. He actually says
In the data provided, raters are not identified and time of rating is missing. I therefore cannot check for inconsistencies that may indicate fatigue. I nonetheless do so.
How did he do so, if he couldn’t do it? He concludes by saying
The reported data show signs of inconsistent rating, and a bias towards endorsement of the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change. These concerns could easily be dismissed with the full data-set.
Okay, it shows signs of inconsistencies but it’s not certain because the full data set isn’t available. Admittedly the authors have not made this available. Personally, I’m not sure I would do so given the tone of Richard’s earlier drafts.
It may even be that Richard has some valid points. However, simply writing a paper highlighting potential issues with another study is not the normal approach (at least not in my field). Typically, one would repeat part or all of a study to show how these issues influence the result. If Richard is concerned about this paper being a metaphor for general issues in the climate sciences (largely unfounded in my opinion) maybe he should be a little more careful about what he writes about this paper and makes sure that what he claims is well-founded. In a sense, what Richard is doing is not consistent with my understanding of the “scientific method”. The “scientific method” works by collecting more data, doing more analysis, and refining methods and techniques. It’s a continual, evolutionary process. It, typically, doesn’t involve poking holes in other people’s work. If Richard really thinks this is important, he should do a study of his own to see how his results (obviously using the ideal methods, assumptions and strategy that would, clearly, be beyond reproach) differ from those obtained by Cook et al.
Okay, I will admit that my short post about Richard’s fourth draft has got a little lengthier than I intended. Oh well, can’t be helped. Comments, as usual, welcome.