The climate consensus: How to take a quote out of context

In a desperate bid to help staunch the propagation of a particularly insidious meme, I offer this attempt to help clear up any confusion:

Mike Hulme and Martin Mahony of the School of Environmental Sciences University at East Anglia have a paper forthcoming in Progress in Physical Geography that explores the IPCC, “its origins and mandate; its disciplinary and geographical expertise; its governance and organisational learning; consensus and its representation of uncertainty; and its wider impact and influence on knowledge production, public discourse and policy development.”

The paper does not say that only a few dozen scientists support the idea that humans are warming the planet, no matter what blogger claims. Thanks to a certain columnist at Canada’s National Post, the notion that a leading climatologist would say just that in a peer-reviewed paper is making the rounds.

Here’s what it does say:

… knowledge that is claimed by its producers to have universal authority is received and interpreted very differently in different political and cultural settings.

The lead author, Mike Hulme, who, as I wrote recently, is getting himself a lot of attention beyond the confines of academia, released a statement today that makes his actual position on the matter quite clear:

The point of this bit of our article was to draw attention to the need for a more nuanced understanding of what an IPCC ‘consensus’ is – as I say: “Without a careful explanation about what it means, this drive for consensus can leave the IPCC vulnerable to outside criticism.” The IPCC consensus does not mean – clearly cannot possibly mean – that every scientist involved in the IPCC process agrees with every single statement in the IPCC! Some scientists involved in the IPCC did not agree with the IPCC’s projections of future sea-level. Giving the impression that the IPCC consensus means everyone agrees with everyone else – as I think some well-meaning but uninformed commentaries do (or have a tendency to do) – is unhelpful; it doesn’t reflect the uncertain, exploratory and sometimes contested nature of scientific knowledge.

The passage that is getting twisted beyond recognition is

Claims such as ‘2,500 of the world’s leading scientists have reached a consensus that human activities are having a significant influence on the climate’ are disingenuous. That particular consensus judgement, as are many others in the IPCC reports, is reached by only a few dozen experts in the specific field of detection and attribution studies; other IPCC authors are experts in other fields.

The point is, there aren’t 2500 attribution experts. Just as there aren’t 2500 Greenland ice mass experts. Nobody who understand the IPCC ever said there were, and Hulme and Mahony were noting that anyone who did wasn’t accurately representing the IPCC.

I’ll end with another excerpt from the paper. This one, too, will be offered without any context or explanation. See what you think:

But consensus-making can also lead to criticism for being too conservative, as Hansen (2007) has most visibly argued. Was the IPCC AR4 too conservative in reaching its consensus about future sea-level rise? Many glaciologists and oceanographers think they were…

h/t to Deep Climate

7 Replies to “The climate consensus: How to take a quote out of context”

  1. Hmmm… I can see your point, but I’m afraid this was all too forseeable. This quote is almost designed to be taken out of context. While he can obviously write what he wants, people in the public eye on controversial issues are well advised to parse their words carefully in order to avoid just this kind of blog-storm. It is not beyond the wit of man (or woman for that matter) to be able to state the details of the reports are written by experts but that the basic conclusions of the ‘consensus’ are well-accepted by thousands of relevant scientists (you need only go to AGU or EGU or read any mainstream journal to see that). See RC for a definition of what is the fundamental consensus for instance:
    Just what is this consensus anyway?

  2. I don’t know if it was “designed”, but certainly Hulme’s statement was not crystal clear.

    Having said that, I certainly did understand it to be a description of potentially misleading statements by “alarmist” environmental groups, rather than the IPCC itself. You have to be, shall we say, ideologically predisposed to give it the interpretation Solomon did.

    As to Hulme’s actual argument, it’s a bit of a straw man, especially since he fails to marshall more specific evidence to back it. And surely the undeniable existence of a broad scientific consensus is more relevant than the occasional misguided invocation of the “2500 scientists”.

    I haven’t examined Hulme’s discussion of the IPCC in great detail. But based on what I’ve seemn, Hulme seems to fail to recognize that there has been very little legitimate criticism of the IPCC. Anti-IPCC propaganda and disinformation is a much bigger impediment to rational discussion of the real issues than misunderstandings of the nature of scientific consensus.

  3. Gavin is, I think, largely correct. Hulme practically dared denialists to twist that quote beyond recognition. I should have mentioned that. But the fact remains that anyone making the case that Lawrence Solomon did would have to be 1) deliberately trying to mislead readers, 2) not able to understand what was being written, or 3) not have made any effort to read the rest of Hulme and Mahony.

  4. #3 James, Whether it is 1, 2, or 3 is immaterial. Solomon, Morano etc. just don’t care. The only thing that matters to them is to be able to make the useful headline or the sound bite, context be damned. While it might make us happy to say that Solomon obviously didn’t understand, it completely misses the point. The ‘game’ that is being played by these guys has nothing to do with reality, only perceptions. If that isn’t clear to Mike Hulme, he really has not been paying attention.

  5. Out of context?
    He wrote it.
    I read it.
    Nothing out of context about it.
    Don’t you think that every time one of these “Scientists” misspeaks, (tells the truth) accusing the rest of us of taking it out of context is just a bit feeble?
    It didn’t work with the hacked or stolen E-mails and it certainly won’t work here.
    Go after Dr. Hulme if you want. Call him a closet denialist or whatever else suits your cause but do not insult the rest of us by claiming that we cannot read.
    He wrote what he wrote.
    Live with it.

  6. but do not insult the rest of us by claiming that we cannot read.

    Then maybe you should learn to read what people actually write, and if you misunderstand, pay attention to their attempted clarifications.

    Why do you dismiss the attempted clarification as some sort of lie given to cover up some hidden truth that was accidentally spoken? it seems like a rather delusional stance to take!

  7. It didn’t work with the hacked or stolen E-mails and it certainly won’t work here.

    You can’t read.

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