If you're a mediocre academic who yearns to be in the spotlight, what do you do? If you've burnt your bridges academically and cemented a reputation as a bit of a hack who isn't too fussed about accuracy. If you aren't too worried that you'll end your lack-lustre career on a third-rate public speaking circuit, talking to a handful of doddering deniers in seedy back rooms of government buildings, then you might consider a career as a climate science denier.
That's the image that comes to mind when I consider the antics of Richard Tol over the past few years. Richard managed to snag a position as Professor of Economics at the University of Sussex in the UK. He specialises in the economics of climate, sort of, though he's had mixed success. That's mainly because he's not a detail person. He isn't too fussed when he lets mistakes slip through - unless, that is, someone catches him out.
You may recall Richard took it on himself to change parts of the IPCC report, after it had been through the review stage, and introduced errors by doing so. When he got called on it he spat the dummy and tossed in the towel (insert whatever similar imagery you like here).
Richard seems to prefer to talk about other people's work, maybe to deflect attention away from his own gross errors - of fact and of judgement. He has a tendency to make wild allegations with no supporting evidence. He also has a tendency to make wild allegations in the face of contrary evidence.
Richard is obsessed with the study by John Cook et al, which determined that almost all scientific papers on climate science, which attributed a cause to global warming, attributed it to human activity. Now anyone who's kept up with climate science knows that's a no-brainer. There is no doubt that the current global warming is caused by us. Richard himself doesn't doubt it.
There is no explanation for this particular obsession that I can fathom. Maybe he was offended by something one of the authors said at one time. Maybe he's jealous of the clear success of the paper. (It's one of the most widely read papers relating to climate, and one of the most widely cited in the public arena.)
Still trying to disprove something he agrees with
Richard's still at it, after two years. After numerous failed attempts to disprove the Cook13 paper and to find flaws in it, he's decided to just make up stuff. The funny thing about all this is that Richard agrees with the findings of the Cook13 study. Anyway, this week he got The Australian to publish a very silly article that must make his employers wonder what got into them the day they gave him a job. If a person wanted to ruin their reputation, they would do well to emulate Richard Tol. (Perhaps Richard's role model is Luboš Motl - another climate science denier who went off the rails.)
Disinformation isn't a difficult trade to master. The target audience is not at all discerning and very easy to please. Facts are no more necessary to the task than evidence or logic or consistency. Unsubstantiated statements are expected, facts are frowned upon. Contradictions are viewed favourably by the applauding denier rabble. Conspiracy theories are desirable but not essential.
Consider this article by Bob Tisdale at WUWT. He applauds the article by Richard Tol, but doesn't say why he applauds it. He wrote:
My Comment: Bob hasn't found a single flaw in the paper, which is why he hasn't listed even one.
Bob: and how it is misrepresented, which is most of the time.
My Comment: Bob and science deniers are the only people misrepresenting the paper. Again he doesn't bother to explain how or why anyone else did or would.
Bob then tops and tails Richard's article but makes no substantive comment. That's typical denier behaviour.
Richard Tol and the 97%
What about Richard's article itself? It's also a lesson in how to disinform. Here is his opening:
Now almost two years old, John Cook’s 97% consensus paper has been a runaway success. Downloaded over 300,000 times, voted the best 2013 paper in Environmental Research Letters, frequently cited by peers and politicians from around the world, with a dedicated column in the Guardian, the paper seems to be the definitive proof that the science of climate change is settled.
The straw man
Richard started off well right up until he got to the bit about "definitive proof...". There are many aspects of the science of climate change that could be described as "settled". For example, increasing greenhouse gases will warm the world. However to imply that there is no more to learn or that there are no aspects of the science that are not settled is incorrect. It's a straw man. Disinformers build straw men a lot. It's easy. No facts required and you've built something out of nothing that you can tear down.
The big flaw
He then says something really silly. Richard wrote:
Consensus has no place in science. Academics agree on lots of things, but that does not make them true.Right. No it's wrong isn't it. Scientists do not go back to first principles every time they do some research. They build on existing knowledge. How do they know whether to build on knowledge or question it? One important sign is the extent to which facts have been corroborated. If all science to date shows something to be so, then that is taken as being so. If evidence emerges to contradict, then the knowledge shifts accordingly. Virologists do not set out to prove viruses exist every time they do research on a virus. They take it as given that there are such things as viruses. A person studying hydrology does not repeat an experiment to determine at what temperature and pressure water changes phase each time they do some research. They draw on consensus. They are satisfied that scientists who have gone before them measured the temperature and pressure accurately for the boiling and freezing points of water.
After saying that consensus has no place in science, Richard then shifts to arguing that consensus can be assumed to equate to being fact. He wrote:
Even so, agreement that climate change is real and human-caused does not tell us anything about how the risks of climate change weigh against the risks of climate policy
He seems to be saying that climate change is real and that it is caused by humans, and then building on that as fact, to argue that one cannot assess risks. It's a trite if not meaningless statement. The first step in assessing risk and developing a risk treatment is to define the hazard, the likelihood of it occurring and the consequence if it does occur. Having determined the likelihood and the consequence, one can then consider different treatments - Richard's "climate policy". In other words, knowing that climate change is real and human caused is a necessary preliminary step in developing climate policy.
The gobbledegook - Richard's "political manifesto"?
Richard then shifts further into gobbledegook. He wrote:
But in our age of pseudo-Enlightenment, having 97% of researchers on your side is a powerful rhetoric for marginalizing political opponents. All politics ends in failure, however. Chances are the opposition will gain power well before the climate problem is solved. Polarization works in the short run, but is counterproductive in the long run.
What does that even mean? What is Richard trying to say? What is the "age of pseudo-Enlightenment"? How did he manage to jump from the science of climate to "marginalizing political opponents"? There was no bridge. These words came out of the blue.
And what about "all politics ends in failure"? What does he mean by that? And is he seriously suggesting that there is a possibility that climate change could disappear in the two to four years of a typical election cycle? That's nuts.
And why does he bring in the notion of "polarization"? What prompted it? there was nothing preceding in his article that was suggestive of "polarization" on any topic. Remember, he got as far as acknowledging something about climate science, and then jumped feet first into politics, rhetoric and whatever.
I've worked with economists and, in the main, they are reasonably savvy politically. Not so Richard Tol. He comes across as a sloppy thinker at best.
Richard flip flopped between facts and nonsense. For example, he wrote:
In their paper, Cook and colleagues argue that 97% of the relevant academic literature endorses that humans have contributed to observed climate change. This is unremarkable. It follows immediately from the 19th century research by Fourier, Tyndall and Arrhenius. In popular discourse, however, Cook’s finding is often misrepresented. The 97% refers to the number of papers, rather than the number of scientists. The alleged consensus is about any human role in climate change, rather than a dominant role, and it is about climate change rather than the dangers it might pose.
Although there are large areas of substantive agreement, climate science is far from settled. Witness the dozens of alternative explanations of the current, 18 year long pause in warming of the surface atmosphere. The debate on the seriousness of climate change or what to do about it ranges even more widely.
The previous was a mix of fact and strawman. I'll let it pass and move onto this next bit:
The Cook paper is remarkable for its quality, though. Cook and colleagues studied some 12,000 papers, but did not check whether their sample is representative for the scientific literature. It isn’t. Their conclusions are about the papers they happened to look at, rather than about the literature. Attempts to replicate their sample failed: A number of papers that should have been analysed were not, for no apparent reason.
That's complete and utter nonsense. The Cook study described how the sample was chosen and it was rigorous and non-controversial in that process. Richard is making up stuff. Richard pointed to his own very silly "paper" when he talks about "attempts to replicate the study failed" - thing is, he didn't attempt to replicate the study. Far from having failed attempts to replicate the sample, other studies produce virtually identical results. For example, James Powell has been examining the scientific literature. These days there are virtually no published climate science papers that dispute the human cause of global warming. Richard goes on with more nonsense:
The sample was padded with irrelevant papers. An article about TV coverage on global warming was taken as evidence for global warming. In fact, about three-quarters of the papers counted as endorsements had nothing to say about the subject matter.
Richard gets very confused about sampling. First he says there weren't enough papers in the sample, then he says there were too many papers in the sample. And he's flat out wrong when he talks about three quarters having nothing to say about the subject matter. Nor does he provide any evidence to back it up except to point to the abstract of his own silly paper.
Off the deep end - nuts vs nutty
If you manage to get beyond those few paragraphs you'll come away with the idea that Richard has gone off the deep end. That there's a screw loose up top. Or more likely several screws loose. Richard is describing his several months of constant harassment of John Cook and the editors of ERL, while he was obsessively trying, and failing, to find something wrong with the paper - despite agreeing with its conclusions.
I've written enough. I've noticed that science disinformers lack substance, logic, consistency and are apparently incapable of rational thought. Perhaps that's where Richard's "pseudo" comes in.'
Richard fits well into his chosen milieu - the Global Warming Policy Foundation - alongside the phys ed instructor, the failed banker and the rest of the ragtag bunch of deniers. If he wants to be viewed as a nutty professor then I'd say he's failed. The image of the nutty professor is of a person who is eccentric and very clever. Richard just comes across as nuts, not nutty - obsessive and not very bright.
References and further reading
Cook, John, Dana Nuccitelli, Sarah A. Green, Mark Richardson, Bärbel Winkler, Rob Painting, Robert Way, Peter Jacobs, and Andrew Skuce. "Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature." Environmental Research Letters 8, no. 2 (2013): 024024. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024024 (Open access)
From the HotWhopper archives
- Settled science: there is a scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change - April 2016
- The fall and fall of Gish galloping Richard Tol's smear campaign - March 2015
- The Evolution of a 97% Conspiracy Theory - The Case of the Abstract IDs - March 2015
- BUSTED: How Ridiculous Richard Tol makes myriad bloopers and a big fool of himself and proves the 97% consensus - June 2014
- Ridiculous Richard Tol sez 12,000 is a strange number... - June 2014
- Denier Weirdness: Don't count climate science papers to "prove" there's no consensus! - June 2013