John Cook is a Low Down Dirty Liar

I’ve previously established John Cook, proprietor of the Skeptical Science website and lead author of multiple scientific papers promoting the consensus on global warming, is a liar. I’ve demonstrated dishonesty on his part multiple times, including when I showed his scientific publications are built entirely upon an intentional campaign of deception.

Today I’d like to revisit one the more baffling examples, Cook’s tendency to fabricate quotes. About a year ago, I wrote a post pointing out Cook had published an article which used a fabricated quote, seen here:

Misinformation_Timeline_med

The post was republished at a blog with far more traffic (Watts Up With That?), with many people having read it. As I found out later, the people who read my post included a number of Cook’s colleagues at his website, Skeptical Science.

Despite this, Cook reused the same figure in a later post. When I found this out, I called him a “filthy liar” and noted:

The quote “reposition fact as theory” is a strange bastardization of the widely reported quote which said “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” The two are dramatically different. If one does not believe global warming is a fact, repositioning it as a theory is perfectly reasonable. However, repositioning something one accepts as fact as merely a theory is not reasonable. It’s dishonest.

The difference in the versions of the quotes is obvious. The real quote advised people to argue global warming isn’t fact, something they probably believed. The fabricated quote advises people to lie by arguing global warming isn’t a fact even though they secretly acknowledge it is.

The error is obvious, but for some reason, neither Cook nor his colleagues cared to correct it. They didn’t even defend it as a paraphrase or anything else. They just kept quiet. At least, they kept quiet in public. They secretly discussed the issue in the forum Cook runs (as can be seen in results of an investigation I describe here).

That shows John Cook and his colleagues at Skeptical Science know they’ve been using a fabricated quote. They’ve known they’ve been using a fabricated quote for going on a year now, but they apparently don’t care. That same image is currently on their web site, being used in several posts (e.g. here and here). That means Skeptical Science has been knowingly lying to its readers on this issue for going on a year now.

But that’s all old news. Today we have something new. Today we have proof John Cook knows about this error. That proof comes in the form of him correcting it. This is a figure included a paper he recently published:

11-16-Cook-Fab-Quote-Corrected

This figure is nearly identical to the previous one. A few items were changed to add detail or information, but the only important change is Cook changed the fabricated quote “reposition fact as theory” to the real quote “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” That proves John Cook is fully aware the quote he is using on his website is fabricated but simply chooses not to fix it.

I believe the correct description for such a person is “liar.”


On a related note, John Cook’s tendency to use made up quotes seems to have been a constant problem for Skeptical Science. At one point, people in their forum had to go through over a hundred web pages to check quotes he posted because so many of his “quotes” weren’t real. One of them, Tom Curtis, even said:

Given the number of quotes involved, the best thing may be a short blog from you explaining the exact reasons for the misquotation, ie, intended to fairly represent the quoted person, did not follow proper conventions because you where not aware of them.

Ironically, Curtis also said:

John does not have a humanities background, and he made the mistake early in his attempts to build the site so I have no doubt that the mistake was inadvertent. But we cannot just ignore it and hope it goes away.

I don’t know why someone would need a humanities background to understand how to accurately quote people, but it is funny to see Curtis say they can’t “just ignore it and hope it goes away” given that’s apparently exactly what they’ve been doing with the fabricated quote I found.

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23 comments

  1. The deception with Frank Luntz goes deeper. But it is widespread.

    With the Luntz memo, environmentalists and climate activists pulled one of the ‘collective gasp of moral indignation’ tricks they specialize in.

    Luntz worked with focus groups. His response to polling reactions in the focus groups was to suggest politicians to reinforce voters’ beliefs in order to appeal to them. He found the public (i.e., his study subjects) did not think there was a ‘global warming consensus’. So, he suggested, – play to the sentiment.

    In other words, Luntz’s memo said nothing that was not already known. Furthermore, the memo showed how the environmental campaign to convince people of the dangers of greenhouse warming had failed.

    But Luntz’s opponents behaved as though they had they uncovered something. Secondly, they spoke as though Luntz ordered Republican politicians to ‘create doubt about global warming’.

    The global warming Alinskyites behave as Alinskyites – as though it was the moral duty of everyone else to promote their cause, as though their own efforts to promote their cause hadn’t failed, and as though they had uncovered some terrible secret in the Luntz memo – just as with the Heartland documents – when there were none.

    http://nigguraths.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/the-story-of-the-frank-luntz-memo/

  2. This is a very interesting post, Brandon. Thanks for your efforts to expose just how contemptuous Cook is of the facts. I started off thinking he was well-meaning but incompetent, but this goes a long way beyond mere incompetence.

  3. To believe that the ‘climate change’ messaging isn’t being carefully managed is probably borderline delusional.

    There are a number of groups that need to be ‘targeted’…the most dangerous group is the ‘doubting thomas” within ones own group/side.

    This group needs an endless stream of ‘plausible’ explanations as to why others don’t agree.

    We saw similar campaigns during the Fukushima incident where there was a pronounced lack of dead bodies from radiation. Some less then honest epidemiologist did a study for infant mortality in Washington State for the 12 weeks prior and 12 weeks post and showed higher infant mortality after the event despite measurable but trivial increases in radiation levels.

    The the infant mortality rate for late winter is for some reason always higher then early winter(year on year comparisons showed no difference) but for those who want to believe that radiation is unsafe at any level the study was enough.

    To believe the epidemiologist didn’t know he was distorting the evidence would probably be delusional…but the cause and it’s believers need to be kept ‘informed’ lest the believers wander into the truth.

    IMHO The purpose of Cook et al always has been from the beginning to provide ‘plausible’ counterarguments to ‘skeptical arguments’ targeted at those who ‘believed and want to believe but had doubts’.

    For those who ‘don’t believe’ and ‘don’t want to believe’ in my opinion it is appropriate that Cook is a cartoonist because the quality of information purveyed is clearly the stuff cartoons are made of..

  4. Jonathan Abbott, you’re welcome! Don’t forget, John Cook was also an author on the infamous Recursive Fury paper, a paper which misrepresented (and even fabricated) quotes. Recursive Fury was retracted for reasons other than the quotation problems, but I’m sure they didn’t help the authors’ position.

    This seems to be a serial problem with John Cook.

  5. The University of Queensland is offering a course, Making Sense of Climate Science Denial, set to start on March 10. The course instructor for “Denial 101X” is John Cook, lead author of the 2013 paper asserting a “97.1 consensus” that humans are causing global warming. If you are not familiar with that much-refuted furphy, follow this link to watch Cook selling his bill of goods.

    Last Saturday the university played host to Barack Obama, who received an ovation for urging “a strong global climate agreement next year.” The climate-denial course at the university is a free global “MOOC” (Massive Online Open Course) offering lectures by Cook and 11 of his associates. These lecturers include seven of the nine people who co-authored his paper on “the 97% consensus”. The same seven were also among the 20 or so raters of 11,944 abstracts for the consensus paper.
    http://quadrant.org.au/opinion/tony-thomas/2014/11/giving-denialists-third-degree-uni-qld-leads-way/

  6. tonythomas061, while I largely approve of the post you link to, I must point out I have a site policy which requires users do more than cite/quote a source – they have to add some original content. That can easily be done just by adding a sentence or two as summary/paraphrase. It’s not a difficult policy to abide by, but it can help reduce spam-ish comments by quite a bit.

    Oh, and one quick (and minor) correction for your post. You correctly note the University of Queensland threatened me, but you then say, “The letter warned that Duarte.” You got the names mixed up there.

  7. Brandon, You’re doing a great job. However, I would like to propose for your consideration the tactical principle that in debate you should never attack people’s motives. More specifically, you shouldn’t call people liars, even when you believe they are.
    People’s motives are irrelevant to the strength of their arguments (or to whether they have committed an error, such as misquoting). And it is easily possible to be mistaken about motives. For example, I don’t see any difficulty in supposing that Cook was just muddled when he produced the quote about repositioning fact as theory. Attacking people’s motives has the result that the discussion tends to be shifted to those motives, which are immaterial. So, I think you are doing a milder version of what Ball has done. This kind of thing is best avoided.

  8. David Ramsay Steele, I agree with your general argument, but calling someone a liar is not attacking their motives. It’s just recognizing they said something they knew to be false.

    In this case, we know John Cook continues to use a false quote despite him knowing it is false because of things like the Skeptical Science group discussing it on their forum and the quote being fixed for a paper he published in a scientific journal.

    We know the quote is wrong. We know Cook knows the quote is wrong. We know Cook continues to use the quote in some areas despite it being wrong. That means we know Cook is lying.

    What we don’t know is Cook’s motive for lying. It’s convenient the lie serves to advance his cause, but that doesn’t allow us to know why he’s lying. That’s okay though. I don’t care why Cook lies.

    All I care about is John Cook is a blatant liar and people should all recognize this.

  9. Well, why does that matter? Suppose that Cook is just muddled and not therefore lying. Why would that change anything? If his argument is wrong, what’s gained by also trying to substantiate the claim that he knows it’s wrong?

    You say that all you care about is that Cook is a blatant liar and people should recognize this. But that’s not true; you also care that what Cook is saying is in error, independently of whether he is a liar or sincerely mistaken. And surely, that’s far more important.

  10. David Ramsay Steele, you just suggested it doesn’t matter if someone is a liar, that nobody should care if a source they use is intentionally deceiving them. That baffles me. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone suggest such a thing before, and every discussion of source quality I’ve seen or heard disagrees.

    And what’s with your suggestion John Cook might just be “muddled”? We know the Skeptical Science group discussed this issue on their forum. We know Cook has published two different versions of the quote. There is no way anyone could possibly discuss a fabricated quote then put forth a corrected version of the quote yet think the fabricated quote is also correct.

    To better understand your position, perhaps you could answer a simple question. At what point, if any, would you say it is right to call someone a liar?

  11. If there is an ideological movement composed of millions of devout adherents, and some of them lie in pursuit of that ideology, though the millions of devout adherents sincerely believe it, then it does not matter in the least whether one particular individual is lying or is sincerely mistaken. Pursuing the question of the person’s subjective sincerity tends to lead to the theorem, D = r, anyone who disagrees with me is a rotter. This theorem can do a lot of harm.
    I don’t think it is ever productive to call someone a liar in the context of the clash of two belief systems, a debate between two ideologies. What is gained by it? Absolutely nothing. What is lost by it? The sympathy of those who sincerely agree with the contentions of the alleged liar, as well as the time wasted in thinking about the utterly immaterial question of whether one particular individual is deliberately falsifying. The point is that a person’s individual honesty is simply irrelevant to the issues under debate, and therefore one should not raise this matter at all. Every time you raise it you damage your own side in the debate. Furthermore, if you get into the habit of calling your opponents liars, especially if you suppose that this is a particularly powerful argument, you run the risk of failing to ask yourself how anyone could sincerely take the point of view you are opposed to. And if you do that, you tend to become lazy and inept at addressing their arguments.
    Of course, there are other contexts where it can matter whether someone is lying or is sincerely in error, for example, in a prosecution for fraud.

  12. I have no idea what you’re talking about David Ramsay Steele. Why would you talk about a “clash of two belief systems, a debate between two ideologies”? There is no clash of any belief systems between John Cook and I other than I think dishonesty (both in intellectual and direct forms) is bad.

    And on what do you base your bold claim “a person’s individual honesty is simply irrelevant to the issues under debate”? That flies in the face of all practical examples. When people find out a person promoting a cause lied to them, they tend to lose confidence in that person, and possibly in that cause. Claiming “it does not matter in the least whether one particular individual is lying or is sincerely mistaken” requires ignoring at least a dozen major examples widely covered in the media in the last few years alone.

    Unwarranted accusations of dishonesty are bad. Immediately resorting to accusations of dishonesty is bad. Acknowledging the indisputable fact some people are liars is not bad. Pointing out when a person demonstrates they know what they say to be a lie is not bad.

  13. You say it’s a “bold claim” when I say that “a person’s individual honesty is simply irrelevant to the issues under debate.” I think it’s fairly straightforward. If an assertion it’s false, it’s false, and it doesn’t matter whether the speaker knew it to be false or not.
    Here’s an example. A few years ago I quickly read up on what creationists were currently saying (in preparation for writing my book on atheism). I found that creationists often claim that though there are fossils of intermediate forms between closely related species there are no intermediate forms between different orders or classes. But there are such intermediates, for instance Archeopteryx (intermediate between reptiles and birds) and Tiktaalik (intermediate between fish and land animals). Now what difference does it make whether creationists who make this false claim sincerely believe it or know it to be untrue (and are therefore lying)? It makes absolutely no difference. The relevance for the theory of evolution of the existence of intermediate forms in the fossil record is completely unaffected by whether those who deny the existence of intermediate forms are sincere or dishonest. And so it is with all issues under debate: motives are always irrelevant.

  14. David Ramsay Steele, I think your position is incredibly wrong. I think you basically just ignore how people actually determine what to believe. It seems you’re framing this as only dealing with technical truths when in reality who is right or wrong on any individual point has almost no connection to the overall issue.

    To put it simply, people say many things. One can rarely hope to address every point they make, and one can never expect an audience to examine each point. The audience will instead judge the reliability and trustworthiness of the overall positions. Individual errors tend to have little impact upon people’s judgments while exposed deceptions have far greater impact.

    I will not be exposing every inaccuracy and deception John Cook is responsible for. I suspect nobody will. If people operate under the standards you say exist, nobody has a reason to distrust what he says. If people operate under the standards I claim exist, anyone familiar with Cook’s tendencies should know not to trust anything he says.

    I think we can all judge for ourselves which standards are actually used.

  15. Well, people often make mistakes in reasoning. What matters is the strength of the arguments, but people may go astray and think an argument has more persuasiveness if the person advocating it is virtuous. “How people actually determine what to believe” may involve fallacious reasoning, but that’s no reason to play along with it.
    If instead of calling Cook a liar you had merely said he keeps getting things wrong, misquotes people, and so forth, you would equally well have drawn attention to the untrustworthiness of this source. If he makes false claims through muddleheadedness and carelessness, he is just as much an unreliable source as if he is sitting there cold-bloodedly putting out lies. Maybe more so, as a clever liar would be careful to mix in lots of truths with his lies, and from my limited acquaintance with his output Cook doesn’t seem to take that precaution, which supports the hypothesis that he just terribly muddled. (I’m not claiming to know he isn’t a liar, merely claiming that a lot of the examples you give can be reconciled with mere confusion and ignorance.)
    Ironically, what Cook is doing with most of his arguments is claiming that climate skeptics are liars. If they knowingly try to reposition facts as theories, this means they are lying. (Actually this is a muddle anyway. There is no opposition between facts and theories. A “fact”, meaning a statement of fact, is simply a theory we take to be true. There are true and false theories, that’s all.)

  16. Russell Cook, thanks for the comment. I read a number of helpful posts at that site when researching the quote, though there are many more I haven’t read.

    Just so you know though, I’ve largely abandoned this domain name. I still monitor it, but I’ve otherwise transferred my blog to:

    http://www.hi-izuru.org/wp_blog/

    You can find this same post there at:

    http://www.hi-izuru.org/wp_blog/2014/11/16/john-cook-is-a-low-down-dirty-liar/

    By the way, the /wp_blog/ part isn’t necessary. You can also just use /blog/. I initially used wp_blog as my directory name because I had a failed installation I was trying to recover at /blog/. Once I got everything working at /wp_blog/, I decided to delete the failed installation and just have both directory names send the user to the same location. So now, /blog/ and /wp_blog/ will be treated identically.

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