It’s Not a Lie, It’s Just Wrong

Don’t call people liars. That’s a rule. Like all rules, there are exceptions. Sometimes people do lie. It’s fine to point that out. What isn’t fine is to cry “Lie!” every time someone says something you think isn’t okay.

To see what I’m talking about, look at this tweet:

Taken at face value, this tweet indicates anyone who says 97% of scientists agree about global warming is spreading a lie. Not misinformation. Not inaccurate information. A lie.

What is the point of saying something like that? It’s true a person can be fooled by a lie and spread it inadvertently, but lots of people won’t make that distinction. For example:

Whether or not the person was meaning to call @YaleClimateComm liars, the accusation is just stupid. The tweet being criticized was wrong to say “97% scientists,” but not in any significant way. The tweet provides a link as reference. The reference says:

Cook and colleagues (2013) examined nearly 12,000 peer-reviewed papers in the climate science literature and found that of those papers that stated a position on the reality of human-caused global warming, 97% said it is happening and at least partly human caused.

That’s accurate. The tweet was clearly referencing it. The tweet describes it inaccurately, but so what? In what world does saying “97% scientists” instead of “97% scientific abstracts” amount to a lie? Why isn’t that just “wrong” or “a mistake”?

I don’t get it. If nothing else, comments like that are stupid on a tactical level. Most people won’t listen to you if you cry “Wolf!” They’ll tune you out and move on. They won’t look further and see the article is horribly wrong. Calling that a lie means you can’t get them to see the problem I e-mailed @YaleClimateComm about (before even seeing any of these tweets):

I am writing to inform you of errors in a recent piece of yours, titled Public Understanding vs. Scientific Consensus. That piece seeks to examine views on global warming, comparing the views of the general population and those of the experts.

Unfortunately, its comparisons are erroneous. The piece includes these two statements:

Currently, half of Americans (52%) think that global warming, if it is happening, is mostly human caused.

In the latest study investigating the degree of scientific consensus on climate change, Cook and colleagues (2013) examined nearly 12,000 peer-reviewed papers in the climate science literature and found that of those papers that stated a position on the reality of human-caused global warming, 97% said it is happening and at least partly human caused.

The views being compared are obviously different. Believing “global warming, if it is happening, is mostly human caused” is not the same as believing global warming “is happening and at least partly human caused.” The conditional aspect of the former makes it easier to agree to, but the word “mostly” makes it harder to agree to.

This is a problem because the paragraph after the second statement says:

Public understanding of climate change, however, is starkly different than the expert consensus: only 44% of Americans think global warming is both happening and human caused.

You cannot conclude the “public understanding… is starkly different” by looking at views on two different issues. It is perfectly possible the difference you highlight stems largely from the difference between “at least partly” and “mostly.”

The conclusion drawn in that pargraph, and the figure following it, are misleading. Not only are the conclusions not sound, most readers will not notice you are comparing numbers for views on different questions.

The piece was largely based upon a deceptive comparison, but nobody will ever notice that if all people say are things like, “97% scientists is a lie!”

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12 comments

  1. I am not sure why you are making such a fuss about this. I wrote one tweet and received 28 in reply from you, despite making it clear in just 1 tweet that I did not really want to discuss it.

  2. The serious point is this. You say I am saying anyone who says 97% of scientists agree… is lying. That’s not the case – it depends on who is saying it. If it was just a random member of the public who had been misled and did not know any better, that would not be a lie. But in this case the people saying it are a group of academics who are supposed to be experts in the field of climate communication. So they know it is not true.

    My main motivation in this whole debate is honesty and objectivity in academia. The Yale Climate team fail on both.

  3. Paul Matthews, please try not to spread thoughts across so many comments posted one after another. As for your comments:

    I am not sure why you are making such a fuss about this. I wrote one tweet and received 28 in reply from you, despite making it clear in just 1 tweet that I did not really want to discuss it.

    You didn’t receive 28 tweets in reply from me. There were 28 tweets from me in which you got mentioned. Of them, I believe only two were actually replies to you. The worst you can say is I didn’t remove your name from the tweets. That may be true, but I don’t know why you’d single me out for it. You could easily make the same complaint about several others.

    What did you do two posts back? 🙂

    Maybe I should call you dishonest for intentionally taking a comment out of context 😉

    The serious point is this. You say I am saying anyone who says 97% of scientists agree… is lying. That’s not the case – it depends on who is saying it. If it was just a random member of the public who had been misled and did not know any better, that would not be a lie.

    Seriously, there’s at least as strong an argument for calling you dishonest as there was for your accusation. Here you flat out make things up about what I said. Not only did I not say what you claim I said, I directly contradicted the idea you attribute to me, saying:

    It’s true a person can be fooled by a lie and spread it inadvertently

    I went out of my way to make a point, and instead of acknowledging I made it, you falsely claim I made the exact opposite point. Then you say:

    My main motivation in this whole debate is honesty and objectivity in academia. The Yale Climate team fail on both.

    I don’t think you lied in your comments here, but I could make every bit as strong an argument against you as you do against them. Should I call you a liar? Should I call Shub Niggurath a liar for saying:

    Which is a completely fabricated claim? Should I say you guys are biased and dishonest?

    I don’t think so. I think I should just say you’re wrong and explain how you’re wrong.

  4. “In what world does saying “97% scientists” instead of “97% scientific abstracts” amount to a lie?”

    As Paul points out, in the world of climate debate, this is a lie.

    There is precious little direct survey data gathered from climate scientists. Dennis and Bray, Annan, and Doran and Zimmerman are some examples. None of them provide data to support to the ‘97% of scientists’ claim. When scientists are directly interviewed/surveyed, a complex, mixed and less polarized picture emerges. This doesn’t mean they would not nominally support the IPCC conclusion but their own positions are nuanced and open to modification.

    A project like Cook’s is interpretive, and contains no direct survey data from scientists. Nevertheless his paper and the Anderegg et al paper are repeatedly used to promote the ‘97% of scientists’, ‘97% scientists’ idea. Whoever’s citing the paper in this manner is using one thing to push another far broader meme. It is a lie.

  5. Shub Niggurath, thanks for telling us “using one thing to push another far broader meme” is lying. I look forward to seeing you apply that universally.

    And by that, I mean, I know you won’t hold to that standard, but I enjoy knowing I can bring it up in the future. For example, in my upcoming discussion of Kappa scores, I could now call you and Richard Tol liars for taking mostly inconsequential test results as supporting the “inconsistent results” meme you guys endorse.

    Then again, I could probably just call you a liar for falsely claiming I call people names all the time. Because “liar” apparently means, “Someone said something wrong that I dislike.”

  6. Hi Brandon. I’d say that ‘Still spreading the lie about “97% of scientists” ‘ is a fair comment. It’s not saying the person is a liar, just that they’re spreading one, perhaps inadvertently. And there’s no doubt it is a lie.

    Lie: an intentionally false statement

    In fact, for many of the ‘scientists’ involved, it looks to me like it’s not just a lie, it’s criminal fraud: They’re financially benefiting from telling the public lies.

    There’s far too much political correctness around, and it’s healthy to “call a spade a spade”. A lie is a lie, and if it offends the liar to have it pointed out, then so be it.

    It’s absolutely clear that the whole ‘global warming’ world is rife with fraud. Money corrupts, and unfortunately science is sold to the highest bidder these days. I personally think we should just tell it like it is.

    Science, like money, government, religion, education, medicine, etc… has become inverted. It is the opposite of what it claims to be. I’m trained as a biologist, so I know a bit…

    It seems science is lying about a great deal:
    – Timescales, the fossil record and evolution – are all suspect.
    – The ‘big bang’, ‘dark matter’, ‘relativity’, – are all clearly inadequate (at best)
    – The origin of oil, climate models, geophysics & tectonics – all suspect.
    – The electric model of the universe – which is becoming widely accepted in Russia, is rarely mentioned… I could go on…

    Regards, Tim

  7. Tim, I pointed out the difference between telling a lie and spreading a lie in my post. The problem is there’s no reasonable way to call the 97% figure a lie. It was in reference to a specific figure in their article, and that figure was accurately described. All they did “wrong” was say “scientists” when they were actually talking about abstracts. If they had switched one word in their tweet, it would have been completely correct. There’s no reason to call that a lie.

    As for the rest of what you say, I suppose you might believe there is criminal fraud if you believe things like evolution are suspect. That’s pretty much where I draw the line. There are open questions in evolution, but there is nothing “suspect” about it.

  8. Hi Brandon. My understanding is that the study wasn’t conducted in a scientific way, and that the results merely confirm the bias of the researchers. (See ‘confirmation bias’)
    The ‘bottom-line’ is whether the folks with all the facts at their disposal are deliberately misrepresenting them – for whatever reason. If so, then the intent is to deceive, its a lie. The 97% claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. We can’t seriously be expected to believe it’s a ‘mistake’.
    Even Forbes says ‘lie’: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamestaylor/2013/05/30/global-warming-alarmists-caught-doctoring-97-percent-consensus-claims/

    fraud: wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain.

    Cook et al. are, presumably, being paid to cobble together these lies, that makes it criminal fraud. Not that I’d expect a prosecution given the paymasters.

    I suggest more research: Evolution is a theory, but it’s not well supported by evidence. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence which conflicts with the theory which doesn’t get any publicity. The accepted 65 million year time since the end of the dinosaurs also is contradicted by considerable evidence. Confirmation bias… As I said – I was trained in it and used to believe it. It’s off topic, so I’ll leave it to you…

    Final thought: Fraud is common. Banking is based on the fraud of ‘lending money’ (it’s not ‘lending’). Government is based on the fraud of ‘the necessity to legislate’ (it’s not necessary, that’s what juries are for). Religion is based on the fraud that they are ‘doing the will of God’ (lol). They all know that they’re deceiving the people, and profiting from it. Why should science be any different?

  9. Brandon, it seems to me that there are far greater problems with the Cook “97%” paper than the (fairly subtle) distinction between the public perception of “warming largely man-made” and “warming partially man-made.” Indeed, you have pointed out some of the errors – the scaling of acceptance of the ‘warmist’ position is incoherent, the paper rating is tainted by confirmation bias, the selection was non-random, and so on.

    If Joe Average posts something to the effect of “97% of scientists agree…” and cites Cook, then I think he is inadvertently spreading a falsehood (or similar) – he is not a (deliberate) liar, and should simply be informed of the weakness of Cook’s paper. I think we can and should expect a higher standard for the Yale Climate Project. It is reasonable to assume that they are aware of the criticism of the Cook paper, and that in determining to cite him they are either (falsely?) confident that the flaws are minor, or they are unconcerned about them.

    I am not sure just what we should call someone in a position to understand the issues who knowingly cites an incompetent paper – but I don’t think “liar” is too far off the mark.

  10. … and I am making the implicit assumption that “Yale Climate Project” is in one way or another a Yale University affiliate – not like “Harvard Graphics” of yesteryear
    😉

  11. dcardno, I don’t agree there are greater problems. That issue is the entire point of this PR campaign. There is no meaningful doubt the greenhouse effect is real. There’s also no value in that position. It doesn’t lead to any course of action. It’s basically as meaningless as saying the sky is blue.

    This PR campaign is a snow job where people are tricked into believing a statement like, “The sky is blue,” means they need to take drastic action to combat a problem. Telling people that statement is a lie won’t help because it isn’t a lie. The statement is true. The lie is in how the statement is used.

    Telling people the statement is a lie won’t work. They’ll look at the statement and see it is true because we can all agree the greenhouse effect is real. They won’t see the distinction between acknowledging the greenhouse effect is real and thinking drastic action is necessary to combat global warming. That’s the distinction John Cook and colleagues don’t want them to see. They want everyone to keep focusing on the 97% figure because as long as that’s all anyone looks at, they win.

    It’s a classic con. It’s like the shell game where you make people believe a pea is under a shell. The con isn’t making people pick the wrong shell. The con is getting them to even accept the idea a pea is under one of the shells. As long as they accept that idea, they’ll always lose because they’ve been tricked.

    Getting people to understand the distinction between saying the greenhouse effect is real and saying global warming is a serious threat is key. The obvious benefit is it prevents one side from using trickery to “win.” There’s another important benefit though. People don’t trust tricksters. People who realize Cook et al conned them will become far more suspicious. That means they’ll be far less supportive of drastic actions to combat global warming.

    Attacking the 97% figure is like arguing about which shell the pea was under. It’s pointless, it’s wrong, and it helps prevent people from seeing the con.

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