John Cook, Proprietor of Skeptical Science, Lies About Evidence

I have reached the conclusion John Cook, and thus the Skeptical Science community he leads, has no problem with intentionally misleading people by knowingly misrepresenting evidence.

The logic of this disturbing conclusion is shown in some comments I made on an article by John Cook, also published at Skeptical Science.  First, I said:

Can someone explain why this piece links to a speech but provides quotes not present in the speech? Did the author just not bother to read his own source?

Building upon this, if an author can misquote his own sources, how much can we trust his characterizations in the same piece? John Howard may have said those things somewhere, but the author of this piece apparently didn’t care enough to find out where. If he doesn’t care to get indisputable facts right, can we really trust him to get subjective matters right?

John Cook responded:

The “I instinctively feel…” quote comes from http://www.theaustralian.com.a…

Note also that the speech on paper is different to the finally presented speech (which I only discovered on YouTube this morning) at www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJwDwL…

My follow-up remark:

Your response does not address anything I said. I pointed out the reference you gave does not contain the material you claim it contains. The fact some other reference may contain that material does not address this. You cannot justify citing one reference as containing material it doesn’t contain by saying a different, uncited reference contains that material.

References are given so people can verify and investigate claims that are made. A reference that does not contain the claimed material does not allow such. Offering it as though it does is presenting a misrepresentation.

Moreover, this goes beyond matters of references. This piece claims two quotes come from a speech given by John Howard. That is untrue. These quotes, by your own admission, do not come from the source you claimed they come from. That means you stated a direct untruth.

You’ve shown you are aware of the actual source of the quote in question. Despite this, you haven’t even admitted you misrepresented the source of it in your piece. That means you not only provided an incorrect reference, provided an incorrect description, but you have also stood by your misrepresentation rather than correct it.

Moreover, I’ll note at your own website, you’ve corrected a fabricated quote (“religious zealots”) this piece contains. You haven’t done so here, not even in the comments section. That means you’re allowing readers here to be misled into believing a fabricated quote is actually something John Howard said – even though you’ve already admitted the mistake elsewhere.

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?

Plus an an additional, separate comment:

It turns out this piece has more issues than I realized. This piece claims Tony Abbott “dismisses the disruptive effects of carbon dioxide because it’s an invisible gas.” However, if you check the reference provided, there’s nothing which indicates Abbott “dismisses the disruptive effects of carbon dioxide.” All the reference shows is Abbott calls CO2 invisible (which it is), and he strongly opposes certain measures some people want to implement to combat global warming.

Opposing a measure which could combat global warming does not mean one “dismisses the disruptive effects of carbon dioxide.” Accurately referring to carbon dioxide as “an invisible, odourless, weightless, tasteless substance” does not mean one “dismisses the disruptive effects of carbon dioxide.” It may be that Abbott dismisses such effects, and it may be one could find a reference which shows he does. However, the reference provided in this piece cannot possibly justify the claim made about Abbott.

This piece also claims Abbott argues “bushfires have happened throughout Australia’s past” so bushfires are not tied to global warming. However, the reference it provides does not show what Abbott’s argument is. It says Abbott dismisses the link between bushfires and global warming, but it never discusses what his reasoning is.

This piece has two quotes and two paraphrases/summaries from individuals. One quote was fabricated. One quote was misreferenced and incorrectly described. One paraphrase/summary was a misrepresentation. The other was a fabrication.

John Cook responded, acknowledging three of my four allegations, dismissing them as “nitpicking of reference etiquette”:

I suggest we look at the original text of the four examples I provide.

Re Tony Abbott dismissing invisible CO2, he says:

““I mean this is a draconian new police force chasing an invisible, odourless, weightless, tasteless substance”.

It’s fairly clear that Abbott’s rhetoric here (invisible, odourless, weightless, tasteless substance) is meant to dismiss the efficacy of carbon dioxide – he knows it and his audience knows it.

Re Abbott’s comment on bushfires, I am talking about Abbott’s response to the UN’s Christiana Figueres and the article I link to refers to that response. That said, it only quotes Abbott sparingly – a fuller quote from Abbott is more available at http://www.theguardian.com/wor…

“Fire is part of the Australian experience … it has been since humans were on this continent. Climate change is real … but these fires are certainly not a function of climate change, they are just a function of life.”

So from a journalistic point of view, a direct link to the fuller quote would’ve been better. My apologies if that’s caused you undue stress. Nevertheless, I stand by my characterisation of Abbott using past bushfires to cast doubt on the link between climate change and bushfires, and that this argument consists of a non sequitur logical fallacy.

Re John Howard’s quote, here is the full quote:

“I don’t know whether all of the warnings about global warming are true or not. You can never be absolutely certain that all the science is in. I am unconvinced that catastrophe is around the corner. I don’t disregard what scientists say. I just don’t accept all of the alarmist conclusions.I instinctively feel that some of the claims are exaggerated.”

Again, I stand by the characterisation that John Howard’s views are based on instinctive feelings rather than a careful consideration of the full body of evidence.

Finally, I have made one change to the version of the article hosted at skepticalscience.com (that I have the ability to edit, unlike this blog) – I removed the quotes from the term “religious zealots”. This is what John Howard has to say about zealots in his speech:

“I’ve deliberately chosen the title for the lecture One Religion is Enough to highlight my belief that part of the problem with this debate is that to some of the zealots in the debate, their cause has become a substitute religion.”

Again, the term religious zealots is an accurate characterisation of John Howard’s meaning. In all four cases, my characterisation of the words of Howard and Abbott is accurate. Your nitpicking of reference etiquette is distracting you from the major point of my article – there is growing empirical evidence that on the topic of climate change, the more conservative a group, the more likely they are to diverge from reality. This empirical observation is particularly ironic – Howard accuses scientists who accept the full body of evidence as religious zealots while his own views derive from ideologically driven gut-instinct.

I was dumbfounded by Cook openly acknowledging he had misrepresented his sources.  For two of the three misrepresentations he acknowledged, he did nothing (despite the fact he altered his Skeptical Science post to address the third misrepresentation).  He argued the misrepresentations were immaterial as other sources would have fit, but if that were true, he could have easily modified the sources he used in his piece.  Moreover, he could have fixed the descriptions of the source for the first two quotes in his piece.

If none of these changes would matter, why not make them and make his post factually accurate?  Why stand by statements he’s acknowledged are false?  My inability to grasp Cook’s reasoning shows in my response to his admission:

John Cook, you just acknowledged, either tacitly or directly, three of the four examples I discussed were not supported by the references you provided. The only example you dispute at all, you dispute by saying you’re right because “he knows it and his audience knows it.” You provide no basis for this claim. It’s pure hand-waving. I, for one, don’t know anything of the sort. It is rhetoric that was intentionally vague enough to appeal to many people. People who believe carbon dioxide will have no negative effects can see it as supporting their views. People who believe carbon dioxide may have negative effects, but those effects are exaggerated, can also see it as supporting their views.

You have no basis for claiming it only supports the former. Quite frankly, it’s naive to think it does. Politicians are skilled at using vagueness in their comments to avoid taking a position. That’s what Abbott did. You cannot simply hand-wave away positions by saying everybody knows you’re right. Doing so is effectively saying, “I’m right because I’m right!”

Regardless, the most important aspect of this is you’ve acknowledged the central thrust of my comments here: This piece misrepresents its sources. Your response to this central point is to say it’s okay that you misrepresented your sources because other sources agree with, thus anyone criticizing you for repeated misrepresentations is just “nitpicking… reference etiquette.” That’s mind-boggling. What point is there in providing references if those references don’t have to say anything like what they’re said to say? How can you excuse making things up about what a source says?

How in the world is not telling untruths merely a matter of “etiquette”? At what point does telling an untruth become unacceptable? What kind of lies can someone tell without it being wrong?

More importantly, if you think it’s okay to tell untruths about the evidence you provide, why should anyone believe a word you say? Heck. You cite an unpublished, unreferenced survey you performed in this piece to support your claims. Nobody can possibly verify what you say. Given the disinterest you’ve shown to accurately describing evidence in this piece, why should anyone believe what you say about that survey? You apathetically acknowledge you misrepresented the evidence we can actually look at. Why should we expect you to have done differently with the evidence we can’t look at?

I am not being distracted by “nitpicking of reference etiquette.” I am being distracted by you misleading me. People have little reason to listen to someone who tells them untruths. They have no reason to listen if the person telling untruths does so unashamedly.

Given that avenue seemed to be played out, I submitted a complaint to Climasphere, the organization which published the article, saying:

I am writing to notify you of serious problems with an article published on your site two days.  This piece, “John Cook: Deconstructing former Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s ‘gut feeling’ on climate change,” authored by John Cook, misrepresents multiple sources.  Attention was brought to this matter in several locations, and it was extensively detailed in the comments section of the article.  John Cook responded in the comments section, openly acknowledging three of the four alleged misrepresentations.  This includes the allegation that John Cook had fabricated one of the quotes present in his article.  Not only has he admitted the quote was fabricated, he modified a re-posting of the article at his site to remove this fabrication.

John Cook defends his misrepresentations by saying, “In all four cases, my characterisation of the words of Howard and Abbott is accurate.”  His argument is while he misrepresented the sources he used, fabricating a quote in the process, that’s okay because the people in question did say those things somewhere.  He claims complaining about his acknowledged misrepresentations is merely “nitpicking of reference etiquette.”

I had intended to write more, but their interface was awkward, and when I hit Enter to insert a line break, it submitted the complaint.  Even so, the nature of my complaint was clear, and they sent me a response saying they’d be in touch shortly.  I’ve heard nothing more so far.  I doubt anything will ever come of it.

However, it seems fair to say John Cook, and thus the Skeptical Science community he leads, has no problem with intentionally misleading people by knowingly misrepresenting evidence.  That’s a pretty big deal.

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