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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Willis Eschenbach wonders about Science

Sou | 2:12 AM Go to the first of 21 comments. Add a comment

Wondering Willis Eschenbach is irate (archived here). He's discovered a survey conducted by Pew Research Center that sampled the views of AAAS members as well as the general public.

The survey itself was of people living in the USA. It included questions on a range of topics relevant to science. For example:

  • genetically modified foods, 
  • safety of foods grown using pesticides
  • vaccination of children
  • evolution of humans
  • human influence on climate
  • humans straining the supply of natural resources
and various other topics including astronauts, bioengineered fuel, fracking and investment in space stations.

Willis didn't comment on any of the findings except for the one about climate change. Here are some of the results of the survey. This first table compares a previous survey with the current one:

There was another question, which points to the problem identified by John Cook - that in the USA in particular, the general public don't understand that scientists know that it's humans who are causing global warming. Here is the change in understanding over time:

It gets worse. 25% of the adults surveyed from the general public don't even think there is any solid evidence that the world is heating up. Hard to believe I know - but the evidence is there.

Willis dons his tin foil hat and talks about the AGW "hypothesis" 

You might be wondering about the AAAS scientists. Willis Eschenbach did. He didn't like it that 87% of them know that the world is warming because of our actions. He decided to dispute that on the following grounds.

First he pointed out that membership of the AAAS is open to everyone. Now that's no reason for disputing the 87% result of course, so he added that the sample is biased because, as he put it:

Sounds good … until you realize that not only is membership in AAAS “open to all”, but in addition anyone who subscribes to Science magazine is a member of AAAS … and for years Science magazine has been a strong supporter of the hypothesis that “climate change is mostly caused by human activity”, whatever that might mean.
So we are already dealing with a self-selected group of people, many of them not scientists, who read a magazine that for years has strongly supported the “anthropogenic global warming” (AGW) hypothesis.
But wait … it gets worse. For starters, you’d think that the Pew Research folks would have made a selection of scientists that weren’t subscribers to a magazine that has an axe to grind. And you’d also think that they would have picked … well … scientists.

What scientific societies dispute AGW? Answer: None

I've got a question for Willis at this point. Can he tell us which scientific society would have a majority of members who don't accept that humans are causing global warming. He might reply with the American Meteorological Society, which came close. A survey was done of its members a year or so back.  It found that only 52% of respondents accepted that humans are the main cause of global warming. Most of those who accepted the facts were scientists who were doing research in climate-related fields. Most who didn't weren't doing research (59%) or were doing research unrelated to climate (34%). 93% of people saying they were publishing research related to climate agreed that humans are causing most of the warming.
In any case, that survey wouldn't meet Willis' criteria. He was arguing that the AAAS people included in the survey weren't necessarily scientists. The same can be said for the AMS survey. 44% of the people responding to that survey said they weren't publishing any research. And  another 43% weren't publishing research relating to climate. Only 13% of respondents reported publishing climate-related research.

So where does that leave Willis? I don't know of any scientific organisation that has a policy relating to climate, which doesn't agree that humans are causing global warming. Is there one?

Willis wants to breach privacy

Willis thinks it gets worse. He wrote:
But failing both of those, once the Pew Center folks had foolishly chosen to sample from AAAS members, surely they would make their own random selection of the AAAS membership? … well, think again. Their methods section cited above goes on to say:
“A simple random sample of AAAS members was selected for participation by the staff of AAAS.
At this point, I’ve got to assume that the good folks at Pew have lost the plot entirely. They let the staff of the AAAS, a group which by and large seems to have swallowed the climate koolaid without demur, choose a “random sample” of which “scientists” the Pew folks would interview. Yeah, that’s the ticket, that inspires confidence …

Now I don't know what Willis expected. Organisations do not normally hand out details of its members to anyone. They are usually happy to participate in reputable surveys but they'll do the initial sampling themselves. Most certainly wouldn't hand over their full membership list with personal details of their members. That would be considered a breach of trust and a breach of privacy.  (In Australia if an organisation the size of the AAAS handed over member's personal details it would probably be in contravention of Australia's privacy legislation. I don't know what the situation is in the USA.)

What Willis is arguing is that the AAAS cannot be trusted to take a random sample of its members. That's his tin foil hat showing. He's just another conspiracy theorist of the type one finds every day on denier blogs like WUWT.

Here are details of the survey sample of AAAS members:

As you can see the majority, by a large margin, are in the bio/medical sciences.

I don't understand the question, sez Willis

Failing all that, Willis gets down to semantics and argues that the question was badly worded, writing:
Then there’s the matter of the poorly worded question. They asked if “climate change is mostly due to human activity”, with 87% of “scientists” saying yes versus 50% of citizens. I hate this kind of vague question, with no time frame on it, no definition of “climate change”, and no definition of “mostly”. For example, the IPCC defines “climate change” as being human caused … but under the general definition, the climate has been changing forever. This means that the well is poisoned before we even start. And what period of time are they talking about? The last ten years, during which there has been no statistically significant warming? The last century? The period since industrialization? And is 51% “mostly” or not? A vague question like that means nothing even if the rest of the survey had been handled perfectly.

That's what I call picking nits. In any case, Willis got the question wrong. Here it is as asked:
Which of these three statements about the earth’s temperature comes closest to your view?
  • The earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels [OR]
  • The earth is getting warmer mostly because of natural patterns in the earth’s environment
  • There is no solid evidence that the earth is getting warmer 
  • Don’t know/Refused 

Looks to me fairly obvious that the question relates to the current warming, not climate change in general and not just the last ten years. Willis, who insists that people "have the courtesy to QUOTE THE EXACT WORDS YOU DISAGREE WITH", often doesn't bother with exact words himself.

What else does Willis Eschenbach dispute?

Now given Willis doesn't want to believe that most scientists agree that humans are causing global warming you've got to wonder if he agrees with the general public? He doesn't say. I think it's reasonable to ask him if he agrees that:

  • It's not safe to eat GM foods (37% general public and 88% AAAS agree it is safe)
  • It's not safe to eat foods that have been grown using pesticides (28% general public and 68% AAAS agree it is safe)
  • We should not build more nuclear plants (45% general public and 65% AAAS say we should build more)
  • There should be no increased use of fracking (Only 39% general public and 31% AAAS favour an increase)
  • The growing world population will strain natural resources (59% general public and 82% AAAS agree)

The above are all from the results of US adult (general public) responses to the Pew Survey.  You'll be interested to know that the general public agrees that:

  • Humans have evolved over time. (68% general public and 98% AAAS agree)
  • Childhood vaccines such as MMR should be required (68% general public and 86% AAAS agree)

The gap between scientists and the general public

What is more interesting from the survey than Willis' wonderings, is the large discrepancy between the responses from AAAS members and those from the general public. There were only three scientific/technical questions on which there was little disagreement: increasing bioengineered fuel, not favouring fracking, and the space station being a good investment for the USA.

You can download the pdf of the survey here.


  1. I do wonder how many AAAS members have modified their lifestyles in a manner appropriate to their declared belief in climate change. It doesn't involve going back to the stone age (as deniers seem to insist), but it does involve a slightly more intelligent approach to lifestyle design than the typical westerner can manage.

  2. OK Willis, now try to poke holes in this:

    1. Too easy. The NYT is a liberal rag not even fit for bird cage liner.

    2. Damn! Killer point there Brandon.

  3. for years Science magazine has been a strong supporter of the hypothesis that “climate change is mostly caused by human activity”, whatever that might mean.

    :-) Well, what can they do. Science magazine is a scientific journal. Scientific journals publish scientific articles.

    1. One might think such circular reasoning would play well with the WUTTers. Alas, the only fallacious logic they accept is their own. :-)

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. The conspiracy ideation is indeed quite strong in this case. Seems that Lewandowsky was right when he said that science denial almost always has a component of conspiracy thinking. ;)

    I have to say I find the question is not an accurate enough response really odd. It crops up every single time no matter how well defined the attribution question is. Funny thing is that the studies where it was well defined, like in the study Verheggen did, you'll see that it strengthens the consensus. Especially among the experts in the field.

  5. I've got a question for Willis at this point. Can he tell us which scientific society would have a majority of members who don't accept that humans are causing global warming.

    This is a lot like the question I want to directly ask any of the Republican presidential candidates (heck -- I'll settle for any elected Republican). I just want them to come up with the name of a single professional scientific organization whose scientific statement on climate change they endorse. -- Dennis

  6. Sou, on a semi-related note, my housemate found this gem the other day:

    'A recent survey by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics finds that over 80 percent of Americans support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA,” about the same number as support mandatory labeling of GMO foods “produced with genetic engineering.”'

    Or about 116% of WUWT readers. Bad maths intentional.

    1. DNA should be banned altogether. It causes psoriasis and stuff.

    2. Especially that there junk DNA. I hear that's *really* bad for you.

    3. Don't be silly. Junk DNA is why we tolerate junk food so well.

    4. I've seen that too often. A Google search brought up this gem from Australia's ABC (from 2000):

      DEAN BROWN: It's been agreed that where you have genetically modified food material then basically that food should be appropriately labelled. So we've gone for a mandatory labelling regime which requires if there are highly refined products with DNA present, or whether there are additives where DNA is present, then it needs to be appropriately labelled as genetically modified.

    5. I wish I could find the article I once read where GM tomatoes are okay because the DNA is only in the leaves :)

    6. The ABC article may not be wrong. There is a discussion whether also animal products should be labeled as GMO when they were fed GMOs. In which case no GMO DNA would be in the food you eat.

      By buying such animal products you support the use of GMOs and the possible ecological and food-safety consequences of its monocultures.

    7. The article itself isn't wrong, Victor. I was just pointing to the wording - if "DNA is present". In most foods there should be some DNA present. (Yeah, I know he probably meant "if genetically modified DNA is present", but that's not what he said.)

    8. DNA only in the leaves ... oh my. Make it stop! [wipes tears of laughter from eyes] How does that even work? Are they chimeras? We're grafting tomato plants like fruit trees now? Egads, even prokaryotic organisms contain DNA. Having paid the bills in college cutting out photographs of chromosomes I have to remember that I've got slightly more than general background knowledge of how genetics work ... but for crying out loud.

      A more rhetorical question: what agriculture ISN'T directed genetic modification!?!?

    9. Nah, DNA is fine. Its the RNA you've got to worry about especially that tRNA. You know, the terrorist RNA. That's really dangerous stuff.

  7. New survey shows extent of scientists’ divide with the public
    Other data points to science's problems with "post-secularists."

    Traditional, Modern, and Post-Secular Perspectives on Science and Religion in the United States

    The USA has a fundamental problem.

  8. " It gets worse. 25% of the adults surveyed from the general public don't even think there is any solid evidence that the world is heating up. Hard to believe I know - but the evidence is there. "

    I've often had a feeling that one of the worst things about getting something done on climate change is geography.

    If the USA had the same configuration of location in relation to the equator and Hadley cells without mountain ranges on the western edge or the Great Lakes to the north ... in other words if the contiguous states had geography and climate similar to Australia's, there'd be a lot less looking-out-the-window sneering at the idea of warming or changes generally. (They'd also benefit from the lack of a tornado season.)

    A lot of the extreme changes they've been getting - in snow fall and storms and floods and cold snaps - are as much related to the consequences of being where they are in relation to the Arctic as they are to warming globally. You just have to look at some of those temperature change maps to see that there are substantial pockets of American population whose experience of the last couple of decades has been of more floods and increasing minimum temperatures rather than of detectable increasing warmth in maximum temperatures. (At least compared to much of the rest of the world.) The lack of record-making cold events rather than the creation of frequent record-making heat events might be a clear signal of warming to someone of a scientific bent, but it's not much to hang a conclusion on for an average non-scientist citizen.


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